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How to manage holiday stress without your family

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Posted at 9:33 PM, Dec 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-07 23:33:20-05

The merriest of seasons can also be the most stressful time of year for many.

With the pandemic limiting the size of family gatherings, many families may be missing important loved ones at the traditional holiday gatherings. This could mean an at-risk parent, or grandparents may not be a part of the in-person celebration this year.

However, medical experts advise, this does not mean you cannot make memories with your family. Although unusual, there are ways to manage the pressure and replace the stress in your celebrations with new ideas that could spark new traditions.

Like many Americans, Jeremy Christopher had to make the tough call to downsize his family gathering this year by skipping out on spending the time with his parents who live in Flagstaff.

"For me I made a personal choice. It just wasn't worth it to travel and risk possibly getting them sick, so better to be safe than sorry," said Christopher, adding that they had planned on getting together over the summer to celebrate "Christmas in July." Christopher says he plans on seeing his family virtually this Christmas.

Brian Riveland, the Medical Director of Devoted Health, said it was very important to try to keep family traditions alive, even if you could not physically be together with all of your loved ones especially because the season was already taking a toll on our seniors.

"We know that a quarter of our seniors, 25% of them are at increased risk due to their mental health issues," said Riveland.

These issues were not always as obvious as depression or anxiety. They were also surfacing in the form of high blood pressure, heart disease, and memory loss issues. Riveland said all of that could stem from depression.

"One of the things that I would really recommend is actually having the family members try to get the technology in the hands of the grandparents or seniors in their family," said Riveland.

"What we find is that majority of people can use the technology if they have it," said Riveland.

Some suggestions to keep our homebound family members engaged included making a gingerbread house together virtually, decorating cookies, singing Christmas carols, or setting up your phone or tablet on the dinner table as you ate your meal, so you could "virtually" eat together.

"We all need to come together and realize that those folks need that extra effort from all of us to reach out to them," said Riveland.

For Christopher that meant stepping up the amount of contact he had with his family in Flagstaff.

"Instead of calling just once a week, I'm checking in with them every single day now. Even if it is just a 2–3-minute phone call, make the effort. It will make all the difference in the world, not just for them but also for you," said Christopher.

Riveland said signs of depression in seniors typically include withdrawing from family members. If they are not making the effort to reach out to you as they did before, seem quiet and withdrawn, or simply just confused, it may be time to seek professional help.

"They may not seem to be as sharp as they were, or they don't remember that we talked last week, those could be different clues to depression," he added.

The area Agency on Aging has a 24-hour senior helpline set up to get access to resources. The toll-free number is 888-783-7500. Here is some more information on loneliness and depression among seniors posted by the National Institute on Aging Depression and Older Adults | National Institute on Aging (nih.gov)