For seniors, the upcoming holiday season can be fraught with the tension of conflicting emotions: wanting to be alone, missing family members, wanting to connect and not be lonely, and feeling too overwhelmed to keep hosting traditional meals.
“This time of year can be challenging for many older adults," according to Jennifer Stoll, a researcher at the National Council on Aging. "The holidays can … present a heightened sense of loss, stress and depression. The grief from the loss of a loved one (recent or past) can be felt more deeply during the holidays.”
People may feel sad over the loss of family traditions, she added. Or health-related issues may keep them from participating in holiday celebrations.
Seniors may have emotional expectations of what the holidays should be like, and negative feelings can become more pronounced when everyone else is celebrating. The National Council on Aging notes that it’s sometimes helpful to acknowledge and perhaps verbalize feelings so others can provide some emotional support through the holidays.
Palo Alto’s Avenidas, a nonprofit that serves local seniors and their families, recognizes the array of emotions and makes sure it offers activity options for everyone, Center Director Tracy McCloud said.
“We have the people that are 100% all in, up to their eyeballs with the holidays,” she said, and some people who might not want to be as social. For them, she said, “We offer quieter options.”
The Bryant Street center in downtown Palo Alto also stays open right up until the Friday before Christmas for classes and activities before closing for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Like many at Avenidas, Palo Alto resident Margaret Simmons, 83, has a lot of thoughts about the holidays, many of which have evolved over the years.
“When my kids were younger and their dad was in Vietnam and I was working, we went places to escape. I used to like Inverness (in northern California). The whole Christmas hullabaloo was silly because we were hardly riding over the fields to grandmother's house. Their grandmother lived here,” she said.
Now, Simmons still hosts Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends. But there are no grandchildren she needs to cook for and she sees her sons and their wives regularly because they live locally.
“This year I said I was not doing it … the whole turkey shebang, but now I am reconsidering because I know a couple of people who would really like it: a young Italian student who is living with me, a homeless guy I speak to whenever I see him, and a new widow who has come for years to my house.”
For Christmas, Simmons' family has a slightly unusual ritual. She likes to go to the movies in the afternoon, after her sons have made pancakes. The family has not made firm Christmas plans this year yet, she said, although she and a friend often find an inspiring performance of Christmas carols or Handel’s “Messiah” to attend.
As far as decorating goes, Simmons said, “I do not like Christmas trees. It is oddly cruel to cut down a tree in California where we do not have those long winter nights.”
So she likes to get a lemon tree or something she can plant. No one buys each other presents.
Karen Ross, who lost her husband several years ago, said that although she no longer buys a Christmas tree she still decorates her apartment and enjoys the decorated tree at The Sequoias in Portola Valley, where she lives.
“My decorations these days are simpler and less complicated than when my husband and I lived in Palo Alto, but they are still good reminders of how special these holidays are. Life is full of memories, but I am making new memories,” Ross said.
On Dec. 8, Avenidas will host a daytime holiday Open House including karaoke, a cookie-decorating station and ornament making as well as refreshments.
For seniors who have always baked dozens of family recipe cookies, this option allows them to enjoy the tradition. But they take home only a few treats rather than having too many cookies to eat by themselves.
McCloud said Avenidas always gets a large Christmas tree but only decorates the top half. That way, seniors can help decorate the bottom half any way they like.
Since some seniors have downsized and are living in senior housing or apartments, it’s not practical or possible for them to have a full-size tree or keep boxes of decorations, so this offers them a chance to decorate.
The nonprofit's sensitivity to how seniors want to celebrate holidays extends beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, McCloud said, Avenidas observed the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday commemorating ancestors the day after Halloween.
Avenidas, in collaboration with the nonprofit Mission Hospice, made a Day of the Dead altar for seniors to place mementos of relatives like photos or other small items. As part of the two-week commemoration, participants could take part in creating a “soul collage” and also share out loud about their departed loved ones at an open mike night.
Some seniors who are not originally from the U.S. are part of Avenidas’ Chinese Community Center at Cubberley in Palo Alto. They regularly celebrate cultural holidays, like the Moon Festival this past September. For many American-born Chinese who are now seniors, this was the first time they celebrated this traditional event.
“They never really thought they would celebrate under the same moon as China,” said Pinki Fung, director of Avenidas’ Chinese Community Center. The group is now preparing for the next Chinese new year celebration on Feb. 15, 2024 to celebrate the Year of the Dragon.
In spite of having mixed feelings about the holidays, Simmons is sure of one thing.
“I am sufficiently old now and have as many dead friends as living and have therefore learned it is best not to postpone. So, I tell people I am thinking about them while I am and so do not need to wait for a holiday to remind them.”