Christmas smiling girl ornament webThe romanticized vision of the holidays is a house filled with loved ones from near and far,  all enjoying one another’s company and a feast of family favorites. Even in a typical year, this ideal is hard to achieve, but in 2020, with travel restrictions and health officials recommending against large get-togethers, it’s wise to lower expectations.
In fact, to limit the spread of COVID-19, Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine, on October 29, encouraged people to limit holiday gatherings to people who live within their own household. She acknowledged that it was a tremendous sacrifice to make, but a necessary one.

St. Luke’s psychotherapist, Tonya Stubits, LCSW, says the decision to follow such stringent guidelines is a personal one, but older adults should consider it very seriously. They should take into account such factors as their age, level of overall health, and if they have conditions such as COPD, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Having one or more of these conditions increases the likelihood that they could become seriously ill should they get COVID-19. Stubits is a psychotherapist at St. Luke’s Psychiatric Associates in Bowmanstown.
Seniors need to know that if they’re not comfortable getting together, it’s OK to say, "No" — to decline an invitation, she says. Even if they’d like to have a large holiday gathering for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or New Year’s, that might not be an option this year due to travel concerns and whether or not family members even want to get together. In addition, because of restrictions related to the size of gatherings, many private parties and traditional public holiday events will be canceled.
“For many reasons, the 2020 holiday season may be very different from what we’re used to,” Stubits says. “To keep spirits up, it’s important to make a plan. Think: What can I control to maintain my wellness? What do the holidays mean to me? What’s most important to me?”
If being with family is important, and you can’t be together in the same room, schedule a time to have a meal, put a computer or tablet in front of you, and use an application like Zoom or Skype to connect virtually with family members. If you’re not tech savvy, ask a grandchild, other family member, or friend to help you, she suggests. If religious ceremonies are important to you and you don’t feel comfortable gathering in person, find a worship service online, she advises. If you normally volunteer at a soup kitchen, then think about donating to a local food bank.
“Holiday traditions are important, but if you’re unable to observe them this year, reminisce about past years and find joy in those memories,” she says. “Social bonds are very important but there are no rules on how we connect during the holidays. And while this year may be different, the holidays can still be filled with meaning and joy.”

Look for signs of depression during the holidays
The holidays are a reminder of loss for many older adults, said St. Luke’s psychotherapist Tonya Stubits. While fleeting feelings of sadness may be normal, it’s important to look out for signs of severe sadness, known as depression.
Depression may look different in older adults from younger people and can be difficult to distinguish from symptoms of physical conditions. Even so, it’s important to know the signs of depression and consult a physician if you suspect your older loved one may be depressed.
One common sign of depression is loss of interest in things they used to enjoy. For example, if your grandmother always enjoyed long conversations with you and suddenly doesn’t want to speak with you at all, she could be depressed.
Other signs to look for include:
lack of eye contact.
poor concentration or cognitive changes.
low motivation that may lead to a decrease in self care, such as showering, getting dressed, and brushing teeth.
weight gain or loss.
expressions of low self-worth, helplessness, or feeling like a burden.

“With the older generation, they may see reaching out for help as a sign of weakness,” Stubits says. “It takes courage to reach out, and they may need your encouragement.” If you suspect that your loved one may be depressed, urge them to see a doctor who can do a thorough physical and mental health evaluation. For information regarding comprehensive geriatric assessments, contact St. Luke’s Senior Care Associates at 484-526-7035.
If advised, seek behavioral health services. St. Luke's Behavioral Health Services helps people with a wide variety of mental and behavioral health issues. For more information, call 484-526-2400.

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