Adapting Family Traditions for an Aging Loved One

December 15th, 2017

By: Sharon Roth Maguire, MS, RN, GNP-BC Chief Clinical Quality Officer, BrightStar Care

As your loved one ages, it can be a challenge to honor certain traditions around the holidays. Older adults may not have the energy or physical ability any longer to host or attend a large family event. And if they do feel up to it, many seniors are on a fixed budget, and the additional cost of the holiday meal can strain their finances. 
 
Some aging adults are perfectly comfortable stating what they want or need help with around the holidays. But many don’t want to cause a stir or disappoint their families, so they say nothing, only to suffer in the long run. This holiday season, you can enjoy holiday traditions and take some of the burden off your loved one with an honest discussion and a little creativity.
 

Honoring Roles and Traditions

It’s important to honor your loved one’s role in the family during the holidays. If your loved one is experiencing signs of dementia, he or she might not be able to remember short-term memories or skills but likely can recall and share holiday stories from their childhood. Asking them how they celebrated when they were young is a lovely way to honor and include an aging loved one without making them feel patronized.
 
Related reading: Tips for Planning Around the Holidays With Dementia
 
In the hustle and bustle of holiday planning and celebrations, remember to include your aging loved ones in traditional family games and activities. It’s important to show them their role is still important, even if it has to change a little. For example, if your loved one always has read a holiday story to the family but their eyesight is failing, you could modify the tradition so the little ones could sit on Grandma or Grandpa’s lap and read the story to them instead.
 

Hosting Family Meals and Events

In many families, the matriarch or patriarch historically hosts the holiday gathering. But as you likely are well aware, hosting is a lot of work, and it can be exhausting for anyone. Talk to your loved one to gauge their feelings about having another relative host this year. Or, if possible, offer to hold the event at your house, and invite your loved one to bring a dish to share or come over early to help prepare the meal.
 
Be gentle in approaching this conversation. Sometimes people are reluctant to “give up” or modify long-standing holiday traditions. Your loved one may perceive the changes as being a burden or losing their place in the family. We recommend not pressing the issue too much unless there’s a real safety concern. Instead, offer to help with whatever tasks your loved one needs or will allow you to do, such as holiday prep work, cleaning, or cooking.
 
In many families, the host bears the cost of holiday events, such as purchasing food and decorations. The American Farm Bureau Federation found that the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal in 2016 was roughly $5 per person. While $50 for a meal for 10 people might not seem like much money, for aging seniors, that could be a significant portion of their monthly budget, especially when you add snacks and beverages to the total.
 
This year, consider asking family members to contribute funds for the holiday meal to ease the financial burden on the host. Another way to divvy up the cost and effort of the event is to assign family members to bring certain items or do certain tasks. Sit down with your loved one and make a list of everything that has to be purchased, planned, or made for the event to be successful. Then create a list of everyone who plans to attend, and assign tasks or purchases to each person based on their skills and abilities. For example, disposable plates, cups, and silverware are convenient but often costly. You could offer to help by purchasing these items.
 
Often, aging adults feel less intimidated about sharing the responsibilities than having all the tasks taken away. They are still in charge, and they can cherry-pick their favorite tasks. Easing just a portion of their responsibilities can reduce stress without making them feel inadequate or like you’re patronizing them.
 

Changing Diets or Food-Related Health Concerns

If your aging loved one has diabetes, high blood pressure, or another health concern, holiday food and beverage choices can be a touchy conversation. But with a few exceptions and some planning, it’s usually safe for most people to indulge a bit for one day.
 
That said, you’ll have to be mindful of certain health conditions. For example, if your loved one’s blood sugar is hard to control, you’ll need to talk with their doctor or home health nurse about how to safely indulge in a slice of Aunt Nancy’s famous chocolate pie. The provider can help adjust insulin or medication for high blood pressure to accommodate for the rich or high-sodium treats your loved one might want to enjoy that day.
 
It’s also thoughtful to provide sugar-free, gluten-free, and low-sodium options of popular dishes. People of all ages are mindful of their health, and this allows everyone to enjoy with less worry. We tried this at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner this year. We prepared two sweet potato dishes. The traditional one was absolutely loaded with brown sugar and butter. The second was plain sweet potatoes with no toppings. Both were delicious, and it was nice for some of my family members who were watching their weight or being more mindful of healthy eating to have that option.
 
Another holiday tradition is holiday cocktails. For most people who don’t have a history of alcohol-related issues, it’s OK to have a drink or two during the holidays. However, if your loved one is on a medication that might interact with alcohol, such as anxiety, depression, or sleep medication, it’s probably best to skip the drinks to avoid dangerous side effects. Also, if you notice that too many cocktails are being consumed and your loved one might be at risk, you should intervene and provide a safe place to rest, hydrate, and recover. 
 
As we age, our health needs and abilities change. It’s natural that traditions also have to evolve, but sometimes it can be tough to accept that things aren't like they used to be. Different doesn’t have to mean bad. Talk to your loved one and find a happy middle ground so you can enjoy a memorable and fun holiday together.
 
Call 866-618-7827 or contact a BrightStar Care® home care agency near you to learn how your loved one might benefit from in-home nurse support services.