It began last week with Thanksgiving, the flurry that surrounds the end of the year and the holidays that are all contained in the month of December. Regardless of our religious affiliation, for some reason, the month becomes packed with celebrations, events, friends and family.
For our children, the holidays are often a time of anticipation and joy, parties and gifts, fun and excitement. As we grow older, the tone is frequently more bittersweet. We share the joys but can’t help but think about those who are no longer with us, those who are only with us in memory. We think about the changes we see in our loved ones, especially those who are older adults, and the loss of who they were is as hard, or harder sometimes, than losing them entirely.
It is not easy to see change in our parents or others we care about, we often wish desperately that they could just “come back” and be the person that they were. It’s a similar wish to the one we make for those we have lost, longing always for “one more day” or “one more conversation.” No matter how much we hope, the truth is that we cannot change reality. We go on because we must go on. That’s how life works.
But for our older adults it is not always that straightforward. The losses that many of our elders face are profound and ongoing. They lose their identities as their careers come to an end and that easy “What kind of work do you do?” question goes away. They lose their friends, spouses, even children, building loss upon loss. And many times they lose the ability to live independently, drive, make their own choices—so much of the control we value in our lives begins to slip away.
It is so important for all of us, those who work with older adults and those who have them in their lives, to remember that holidays may bring all of these losses to the forefront. The memories of the season may be pleasant ones but they may also be mixed with sorrow. They may miss their families and friends, their homes, even the things they used to do. A wistful “I always cooked the turkey and had the family around my table,” can be the tip of the iceberg of longing for what once was.
How can you help with that? How can you connect with an older adult during this season? One thing you can do is to use music to help you. Music, the universal language, can help to facilitate a conversation about memories, about years gone by and celebrations remembered. Asking questions, engaging the older adult in the kinds of activities they once did, all can lead to both meaningful dialogue and an opportunity for recollection.
Individuals with cognitive or physical impairments can still help mix the batter for latkes, hum a familiar song or watch candles being lit. Those moments are the chance to ask about what their favorite part of a holiday was, how they celebrated holidays in their youth and more. Rather than mourn the loss of the person they were, we can help them to share and, in doing so, enrich both our lives and theirs.