Lessons for Life

Including seniors in your holiday celebrations

How to make sure your family's older members stay an important part of your festivities

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Seniors and the holidays

Seniors and the holidays (Dennis Wise/Getty Images / December 17, 2012)

Spending time with senior citizens during the holidays is something many of us do, either out of tradition or in some cases, obligation. But including family elders in our celebrations can add a layer of joy and connection that can greatly enhance the memories of your festivities.

"I see for a lot of seniors that time loses a sense of meaning — where Thursdays are like Saturdays and there's nothing to look forward to and everything sort of blends together," said Steve Barlam, chief professional officer and co-founder of LivHOME, a Los Angeles based company that provides at-home elder care. "And the holidays are the perfect time to mark time in the most meaningful way."

"We find that stories are the most magnificent gifts that our seniors can provide," Barlam said. "Look at the current traditions within the family now and then ask your senior, 'How they compare to how they were when you were young?'"

Barlam suggests making your senior the centerpiece of a gathering rather than an accessory.

"So many times a senior feels left out or helpless because they may not be able to do as much for themselves," Barlam said. "What an opportunity it would be for that person to be the center of attention, incorporated and engaged in the discussions during the holidays."

Here are some of Barlam's tips to include seniors in holiday celebrations:

Write it out.

Whether it's a short story retelling one of your Aunt Mary's favorite tales or grandma's cinnamon roll recipe in a picture frame, Barlam recommended gathering memories and printing them out so they will last forever.

"We compiled recipes and made a booklet of holiday baked goods from my grandmother's recipes," he said. "From old traditions, you can create new traditions and that's the greatest gift."

Go digital.

"If you have younger people in the family, getting them to make videos with the seniors in their life is a great way to bridge the generations," Barlam said. "You can create YouTube videos ... for either you to use privately or share with others."

Be inclusive.

Often families may struggle to find ways to include seniors affected by dementia or other cognitive impairment, Barlam said. But he adds there are ways to make sure those seniors are still a part of the family's holiday traditions. "One (LivHOME client) always sent out that letter that updated family and friends of what went on during the year, but when she got dementia she was less able to keep track of that," he said. Instead of just letting such traditions lapse in such cases, he said the family could collect and share past letters. "What a wonderful way to remember how much vitality someone still has even when they are struggling with cognitive decline."

Don't forget the photos.

Barlam said instead of using photos in the usual way, try creating a new tradition: Choose a few meaningful photos from family albums, and ask family members to guess what's going on in the images. Then have your elder to tell the true story behind the events shown in the photos.

"Other families will use the photos in the most traditional way, where they put names on the faces and ask simple questions. But this will bring a smile to the senior's face and laughter as well as poignant stories because it's not always funny. ... But they can teach important lessons to the next generation, two generations down, even three generations down the line."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

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