According to the National Institutes of Health, of the more than 35 million adult Americans 65 and older, about 2 million suffer from full-blown depression, with another 5 million plagued by less severe forms. Grief experts say this illness can often take on greater significance during the holidays.
While this holiday season will be a traditional time for joy, older adults who are grieving the loss of a loved one may experience pain and sadness.
If you are experiencing such sadness, what can you do to make getting through the upcoming holidays easier?
To answer this question, we recently spoke with Dr. Mary K. O’Neill, a clinical psychology post doctoral fellow, working in private practice in Northeast St. Petersburg. O'Neill is under the supervision of licensed psychologist Dr. Michael Eastridge, whose office is at 275 96th Ave. N in Bay Oaks Centre. Dr. O’Neill has special training in geriatric assessment. Her specialties also include complicated mourning, grief counseling and end of life concerns.
Here are several suggestions she offered, which in many cases, will not only help the aged experiencing grief at this time of the year, but adults of all ages attempting to cope with the loss of a loved one during this holiday season:
1. Don’t isolate yourself. Dr. O’Neill said she considers this to be one of the most important suggestions she can offer. “Find somehow to be around people. Even if it is nothing more than going to the store and engaging with the cashier. The more time you spend home alone, the more time you will have to dwell on your loss and get caught up in sadness.”
2. Vary your traditional holiday routine. Dr. O’Neill noted that for many people it just might be too painful to maintain the same rituals they enjoyed with their deceased loved one. If that is the case, she says don’t be afraid to develop new rituals or rearrange those you did in the past.
3. Focus on the living. In keeping with developing new routines, consider “reaching out to others by volunteering for a local charity or cause.” Reach out to family or friends who may be equally as lonely as you. Send a card to someone who has moved away, or visit an acquaintance you know is alone.
Another gesture, which can be therapeutic for you or someone you know in grief, “is to find a way to support that bereaved individual. It may be something as simple as sending a note to the daughter of a deceased person you knew, letting her know how much you enjoyed the time you spent with say her mother. The daughter will deeply appreciate hearing about the joy her mother brought to you.”
4. Be flexible regarding your expectations. If you don’t feel comfortable accepting an invitation to a particular party or dinner, Dr. O’Neill says to simply decline the invitation. This also holds true for other common traditions: If you don’t feel like buying gifts, wrapping presents, mailing out holiday cards, or decorating for the season, that’s okay. Dr. O’Neill says there is “nothing abnormal about feeling this way.”
5. Be open to talking about your loss. Dr. O’Neill says, “Talking about feelings is something particularly hard among the elderly. Sometimes telling stories is easier. Focus on fond memories, and share those warm memories with others.” You may be surprised at who is interested in listening. If you choose to create a scrapbook or ‘“memory book”, do it with others and share the experience.
6. Stay active. Schedules get disrupted over the holidays for various reasons, but try to stick to yours as closely as possible. If you usually meet up with friends for lunch on a certain day, keep going! Try to get outside, walk, swim, or do whatever activities you usually do.
Concluding Dr. O’Neill stated, “Please keep in mind these are only suggestions. Everyone grieves differently and for longer periods of time. Above all, I encourage those in grief, with whatever choices you make, to be gentle on yourself. Allow for good days and bad days. Remember that many people struggle during this time, and you are not alone.”
Dr. Mary K. O’Neill can be reached at 727-803-6986 or via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.