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December 25, 2001

Beating the Christmas Blahs

By Nancy Duncan, M.S.W.

Skipper Chong Warson


ah humbug to Santa, you say? Feeling lonely and isolated? Not in the Christmas spirit?

The holiday season is supposed to be a festive time of year filled with merrymaking, gift giving, and fond recollections. A time of greetings from faraway friends and a season that brings loved ones home for the holidays. Yet for many seniors, Christmas can be a time of sadness, longing for days gone by, and ultimately, depression.

If you're feeling lonely and isolated, you may find some solace in the following fact: The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 9.5 percent of people in the United States over 18 years of age have a depressive disorder. The Christmas season and holidays in general seem to be the worst times for many depressed people, especially seniors.

The Christmas blahs: What triggers them?

  • The blues. If the holidays cause you to feel sad, maybe you've got a case of the winter blues. Season-specific depression, known clinically as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is brought on by diminished daylight and limited sun exposure. See your physician for help with this condition -- it's not unusual among seniors.

  • Isolation and distance. Extended families today are often separated by thousands of miles. As a result, many seniors live alone. In addition, if a senior has recently lost a spouse, the holidays can be a painful reminder of a loved one who is no longer alive.

  • If the holidays cause you to feel sad, you might have a case of the winter blues. This is known clinically as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and is brought on in winter by diminished daylight and limited sun exposure.

  • Strained family bonds. The combination of relatives and Christmas doesn't always bring joy to our hearts. If family relationships are strained, tempers can flare and additional feelings of anxiety and heartache can result.

  • Sleep. The National Sleep Foundation says 62 percent -- nearly two-thirds -- of American adults experience sleep problems at least a few nights per week. A lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your emotions, particularly when you're under stress.

  • Unrealistic expectations. Cultural norms about what makes a family holiday successful can create undo pressure.

  • Medication. Carl Tishler, Ph.D., a fellow of the American Psychological Society (APS), points out that certain medications can cause depression. He advises seeing your family physician for a complete medication evaluation. If depression persists, an underlying medical condition could be the culprit, Tishler says.

Combating the blahs

So what can you do this year when you feel more like Scrooge than Santa? Take responsibility and get control of your life. Try to avoid dwelling on the past or on holiday expectations, since this can perpetuate blue feelings. There is more to life than holiday get-togethers, spending, and presents. Life is for living, loving, and sharing yourself. Here are some suggestions to make this Christmas season better than ever:

  • Exercise: Take a long walk with a friend, or better yet, a child. A young person has the ability to show adults the true meaning of life. Or instead of walking, sign up for a swimming or aerobics class designed specifically for seniors.

  • Volunteer: It's never too late to help out your local church or hospital. Volunteer to serve dinner and pass out gifts to needy families. Call local social-service organizations or a nearby hospital and put your spare time to use.

  • Sing: Organize your neighbors and friends and plan to go Christmas caroling. Or join a church choir.

  • Play: Maybe you've always wanted to play the piano, join a dance class, or write a book? Do it! Or take up yoga for health and flexibility ... or learn to paint.

  • Work: Go back to work, or, if you're still working, make a change. Many seniors today want to remain in the workforce, and more employers are recognizing as invaluable the experience, knowledge, and skills seniors can offer.

  • School: Take a class for interest, or polish up your job skills. Learn a new language. Sign up for a computer class.

  • Pets: Research shows that pets can perk up a sour or depressed mood. "Even raising a tropical fish could do the trick," says Tishler.

  • Entertainment: Schedule a date night with a friend at least once a week. See a movie, take the grandkids shopping, or have dinner out and try something new on the menu.

  • Reach out: Call an old friend, a distant relative, or an old flame.

  • Travel: Most travel agencies have senior specials and a variety of enjoyable adventures that are affordable.

Some lasting advice

As David W. Trader, M.D., medical director of geriatric psychiatry services at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, points out, "Once family has left, post-holiday letdown is common."

Dr. Trader advises seniors to prepare for potential holiday letdown by getting involved in enjoyable activities and creating a routine. Avoid the blues by having activities and dates with friends to look forward to, and keep your gaze forward, into the future.

If you just can't shake the blues, however, go ahead and share your feelings with your physician or a qualified counselor. Give yourself the best Christmas present ever this year: lots of happiness and good memories.

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