December 25, 2001
Beating the Christmas Blahs
By Nancy Duncan, M.S.W.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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