Tailoring the Holidays for Elders’ Needs

Some aging parents are lifted by the excitement and activities of Christmas; for others there’s overstimulation and stress. And at some point, for all aging parents, there’s a slowing down. Do we notice this? Can/should we do something?

Indeed, the holidays can be tricky for some and need to be simplified for two groups: aging parents/elders and those with Alzheimer’s. (See Related below for latter.)

There comes a time when aging parents and elders we care about can’t do what they used to because of aging-related conditions. I ran the preceding sentence by our Sr. Advisor, Dr. Bud, MD, (psychiatrist) asking for his thoughts.

‘”The consequence of aging is difficult to process. You (older people) feel weakness, frustration–less and less in charge. Your expectations of yourself to perform at a certain level leave doubts.” For example: “It can be a struggle to articulate thoughts and responses, causing frustration and fatigue from trying.” …And hearing–“You keep hearing loss hidden because it’s embarrassing. A joke is told, you miss the point because you don’t hear; yet everyone’s laughing so you laugh to hide your (hearing) deficiency. it’s embarrassing to expose weaknesses in oneself.”

As I listened I gained new insight–realizing why some elders I’ve known, who appear to function well one-to-one, begin to drop out of the “social scene.” It seems to come down to at least 3 age-related conditions:

1. Less tolerance for confusion
2.  Changes in energy level
3.  Pride

Knowing this, we can offer the support and do some of the “tailoring” so the holiday festivities provide less stress and more fun as parents age.

Confusion: Too much going on can be confusing. Think: holiday events–too many people to remember, too many conversations to pay attention to; too much energy in the room; too much noise–makes listening difficult. The solution: Encourage small festive gatherings of friends and family. They work best.

Dad enjoyed people, regardless of number. He held a high position in the Hospitality Industry and loved speaking at large conventions (introduced Ronald Reagan at one). Yet, in his later years, he slowed down–preferring fewer people, more easily-heard conversation. On short notice he (in his early 90’s) let us invite his friends for New Year’s Day 6 months after Mom died. We were visiting, made the suggestion, and offered to make the calls and bring in the food. Around twelve elders (88-90+) arrived that afternoon–ate, talked, laughed, watched TV. Our effort was minimal (Trader Joe’s everything) but their enjoyment was great. An easy way to lift spirits at the start of a new year on a small scale.

Similarly Sr. Advisor, R, remarkable at 97, had an unusual amount of energy for her age–even after her recovery from broken hip surgery. At 99 she was rationing her energy–declining invitations to go out two days in a row and avoiding large holiday parties. Shortly after her 100th birthday party, at her insistence a smallish affair–just family– she lost the “oomph.” Doctors say her health at 101 is “excellent for her age,” yet she uses lack of energy as her reason for staying home. She controls– has tailored the holidays as a time of giving to others. She no longer wants the festivities.

Energy: Older people’s energy declines. “Energy is always a problem,” according to Sr. Advisor D, now 89. She says sometimes it’s necessary to “pick and choose” what you’re going to do and it’s often dictated by the energy involved.

For example, this year she didn’t attend her family’s Thanksgiving dinner, an hour’s drive away. A family member could easily take her and bring her back. Just recovering from a bout of something, she said she didn’t have the energy to make the effort.

Do we realize it takes energy to have conversations? The need to quickly remember things and people can cause stress. It also takes energy to dress especially nicely to go out. It takes additional energy if a long drive is involved.

No-longer-driving elders are dependent on someone for transportation, which creates an additional obstacle: if they  want to go home early for any reason, they don’t want to impose on their driver, according to Sr. Advisor, D.

One solution: Someone (their friend?) drives elders to the event. They can call you on their cell phone if they want/need to come home early. We’re not talking about an every-night responsibility. Most likely an available family member can handle that responsibility during the holidays. ls this payback time? Isn’t this what parents did for us, should we have needed to leave a party early when we were teenagers? Of course, they may decide to stay and go back with the person who brought them.

Pride: Older people may not want friends and/or former colleagues to see any lessening of themselves.

One 90-year-old with advanced macular degeneration, for example, declined all invitations to large social activities, rather than risk the embarrassment of misidentifying or not recognizing people she knew.

While we can’t tailor large parties, there’s a solution so those with low vision can feel comfortable going. Several older people with macular degeneration go to parties with an early detection device– a good friend or family member who stays with them and discretely whispers in advance “Here comes Sally.” Can we be an early detection device for low-vision elders?

If this works for the President, who has people standing behind him quickly whispering the name and position of the person coming up to greet him at events, why not use this “crutch” for aging parents who have low vision and even those with bad memories?

After all, connections with others help older people age well. Isn’t that our goal?

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.

Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s blog. Especially read comments.
                For Elders Who No Longer Drive at Night: Suggestions for enjoying the Christmas lights

Slowed-down Aging Parents–What I never realized


“I’m late, I’m late……..”*

(Joints stiffen. Less agility. More wisdom. More Caution.
Does slowing down begin earlier than we realize?)

While I don’t remember the time (it was decades ago), I do remember the place: inside a New York taxi. I found a credit card on the floor and tried to decide whether to leave it with the driver or take it home and try to locate the owner.

The next time I took a taxi, after paying and before getting out, I took a few seconds to look at the back seat and floor to be certain I hadn’t left anything. Taking precautions.

How does this relate to aging parents slowing down?

I’d never before thought of accidentally leaving something in a taxi. But from the moment I realized the possibility, double-checking before exiting became normal for me. It  took a bit longer getting out of a taxi from then on.

I’m guessing we’ve all experienced moments similar to this– that caused us to adjust our actions so we continued to do what we previously did–only not as quickly.  As we get older our experiences multiply, generating wisdom and opening our eyes to potential problems we’d never thought about (eg. the necessity to double-check).  Then add age-related problems and dwindling energy.  Understandably people slow down. For fast-forward adult children (who may not realize this is happening to them too), pokey parents can frustrate and annoy.

Last month I had lunch with a friend (and former colleague) on her 92nd birthday. For at least two decades we’d celebrated with a birthday lunch that included one of her college friends (now 90). Both women were educators. That’s how I knew them.

Very bright and able (one was recruited for the Manhattan project), they attended the same college, one of the “Seven Sisters.” People would say they have aged well, yet they clearly have aging issues. During lunch, while we discussed politics (often an ongoing discussion in NY), and the accomplishments of their children and grandchildren, and caught up on what others are doing, the theme of “time” was always in the mix–whether explicit or implicit.

The women (with varying degrees of macular degeneration) and now widowed, discussed how long it took them to do things now, as compared to their younger, working years. They were well-aware they have slowed down. The one with better vision continues to drive to a responsible supervisory position but only two half-days a week now; the one with greatly impaired vision taught college math into her early 80’s. Currently she has a daytime companion to drive her and help keep her home in order.

They talked about how much time it takes just to get ready to go out in the morning. Interestingly things we take for granted, like the physical act of dressing, slows older people down.

Think about stiff joints and arthritis…and vision. Then think about buttons, zippers, or–for women–the clasp on a necklace or fastening a bra (which some do from the front before turning it around to the back), or the physical act of slipping something over one’s head.  How much additional time does it take to differentiate dark blue from black? (Try sorting those socks.) Have you ever seen an older man wearing one black sock and one dark blue sock?

There’s age-related slowing down (vision, hearing, muscle loss, stiff joints) plus, Sr. Advisor D noted, psychological slowing down that comes from caution and concerns. She stressed a prevailing fear of falling (and breaking a bone, a hip) among the old, old-old, and oldest old.

There’s also “a persistent worry about forgetting,” she said, “so there’s added urgency– the feeling they must take care of a thing right away before it’s forgotten.” This causes older people to double-check themselves to make certain they did–or will do– it right. And they don’t multi-task well because they realize multi-tasking diverts concentration and can easily lead to forgetting.  Concentrating on one thing at a time is a good strategy, but takes more time.

We may become frustrated and impatient when aging parents seem so pokey. Assuming they have a perfectly good mind, we can easily become intolerant when they’re keeping us waiting while they finish getting ready for something important like a doctor’s appointment.

Should we leave some wiggle room (tell a little lie) when giving aging parents a time they need to be ready? It can’t hurt. We only need to remember to be diplomatic when we ask them to write it down on their calendar or put it in their smart phone. Otherwise, if they’re late, we are partially at fault, aren’t we.


* Smidge of original dialog from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland