When Holiday Traditions Change: Navigating a New Season with Aging Parents

When Holiday Traditions Change: Navigating a New Season with Aging Parents

The joy of traditions, of course, is that they stay the same, bringing the comfort of a familiar rhythm to friends and family during special times of year. However, sometimes even the longest-standing traditions must change to accommodate life’s transitions. That’s okay. With creativity and an open mind, you can keep the poignancy of the holidays alive, even with some changes.

If you have aging parents, and especially if you also still have children at home (the reality of the dutiful “Sandwich Generation”), the holidays can elicit a fair amount of stress. At one time, a parent or in-law likely hosted holiday dinners, maintaining a specific menu of dishes the family couldn’t live without. Let’s face it: you’ve probably always looked forward to your favorite stuffing and pie, too! But as the matriarch (or patriarch) of the family ages and can no longer keep up with the demands of the holidays, you might feel like you’re losing steam, too.

Give yourself a break. As Linda George, associate director of the Center for Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University points out, “At the holidays you want to create a feeling, an emotion, an atmosphere. But it doesn’t mean you have to do things exactly the way they’ve been done in the past. It’s the feelings that are important, not the details that elicit those feelings.”

So what can you do to navigate this new season with a sense of peace?

Celebrate on Their Turf–No Matter Where That Is

Perhaps Thanksgiving has been at your mother’s house for decades, and now she’s residing in an assisted living community. While she won’t be able to put on a spread of homemade food, she can still play the part of hostess. After all, this is her home now, and you’re still coming to her. Make a point to connect with staff and other residents your parent interacts with daily. Bring a familiar centerpiece to her apartment or room. It’s all about the who, not the where, and if your parent is still the “keeper of the holiday,” they can feel a sense of security and pride.

It’s also important to note that many residents don’t like to leave their familiar location and routine. A well-intentioned, special trip to a younger relative’s house may actually leave them feeling agitated and ready to return sooner than expected. Be aware of their schedule, routine, and emotions, and be willing to be flexible.

Find Other Ways to Make Connections

Even if it’s not possible to get the whole family to your parent’s residence, you can facilitate important connections that lie at the heart of the holidays. Try a Skype or Facetime call with kids and grandkids. If that kind of technology isn’t available, make a family DVD with footage from the previous year to send in time for the holidays. Put together a slideshow for a digital photo frame so they can feel connected to the family all year long. Even a phone call in which you narrate opening gifts, trimming the tree, or singing a favorite carol can make them feel bonded with the family and back at home for a few special moments.

Let Go of Guilt

If you’re in charge of multiple generations this holiday season, you may be feeling a lot of pressure to keep everyone happy. Try to let some of that go. Reserve a place to eat out for holiday dinner, inviting family for dessert and hot chocolate afterwards. Shop for experiences, not gifts, and enjoy each other’s company while driving through holiday light displays or breathing the fresh winter air at the park. By keeping the preparations and expectations simple, you can focus on relationships, not decorating or cooking perfection. Who knows–you may enjoy the new traditions more than anything else.

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