By Michael A. Keys, MD

Dr. Keys is a geriatric psychiatrist, Adjunct Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and Director of The Senior Health Program at the Lindner Center of HOPE, Mason, Ohio.

“It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas”                       -Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

So the angst of the holiday season begins.  It’s a December afternoon spent watching college football and the light fades early.  There is the commercial at half time of a man of means surprising his adoring wife with a brand new luxury SUV with a red velvet bow larger than my house.  “Great ,” I think to myself, “this year I’ll I have to surprise the wife with a Buick. “

Not this year.  Not even in the holiday spirit of helping out GM.  The problem with the holiday season is that it never quite lives up to expectations.   We have in our mind an idealized notion of Christmas past when the warmth of family and waking up to a morning that is an indulgence of wish fulfillment.  The “holiday blues” are a common experience for a number of reasons.  We want to recreate the perfect Currier & Ive’s image of holidays past.  Social expectations, holiday parties and gatherings stress our usual routines with little downtime for ourselves.  Trying to find the perfect gift for grandkids and family, and what seems an ever-growing list of those you have to account for.  Throw in holiday cards, the shopping, the wrapping, and it becomes a pretty stressful time.  And then for many there is the relative loneliness and isolation that occurs for many seniors as they watch the perceived joy and celebration of those around them.  The holidays tend to be a period of recounting the past years and where we are in our lives.  While there may be positives for which we are thankful, it often marks a sense of loss or times past. Another Christmas after the death of a spouse.  A divorce. A family member who may be overseas in the military.   Children who now live far away.

Some suggestions are offered by Hinda Dubin, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist at the University of Maryland who has tried to understand the phenomena of holiday blues.

  • The holiday blues are a relatively normal response.  It is not to be confused with clinical depression unless it extends for a long period of time and accompanied by symptoms suggestive of more serious depression.
  • Keep the holidays simple and enjoy them.
  • Don’t try to recreate the holidays of old.  It’s unrealistic and bound to serve up disappointment.
  • Invent new traditions each and every year.   Get out and see the lights, the poinsettias at Crohn Conservatory, and listen to the music.
  • Connect with those who care about you.  Put aside resentments and disappointments and allow others to reach out to you.
  • Get out of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to include or join with new friends and acquaintances.  I always loved the saying,  “friends are god’s apology for family”.
  • Don’t’ over extend yourself financially.  Don’t get caught up with the idea of the perfect or over the top gifts.
  • Don’t over do the eggnog.  Moderate food and alcohol during the holidays.
  • Take time for yourself.

Remember that the holidays are about the sense of renewal and promise of better times ahead.  That may be hard to imagine in the times and circumstance we face. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in response to the social and economic issues of his time.  But he tapped into the theme of the holidays as a measure of where we are in our lives.  Scrooge remembers Christmas past as a time of happiness when others such as Old Feziwig showed kindness to him, but he also recalls the disappointments and isolation he experienced as a boy.  He dreads the future.  His redemption comes in being able to embrace the here and now,

The holiday traditions we now know started with celebration of the simplest of joys, the celebration of light at the time of most darkness, the winter solstice, and the promise of the longer light of day to come.  Families , following the harvest, had the time to spend with each other.  Experience the holidays, much like Dicken’s suggestion of a child, with a sense of wonderment and promise.

Happy holidays.

By Michael A. Keys, M.D.

Dr. Keys is Director, Senior Adult Psychiatry for Lindner Center of HOPE. He is a regionally known and respected expert in geriatric psychiatry

Contributed by and printed with permission from the Lindner Center of Hope