Planning a Stress-Free Holiday for Young and Old
The stockings are hung by the chimney with care. Everyone’s stuffed from their third helping of roast beast, and the tired but happy hosts are ready for their long winter's nap. But Great-Grandma looks lonely all by herself in the den and her great-grandchildren are in a no-holds-barred wrestling match over the Wii controller.
What to do? When planning your holiday get-together, pay special attention to the family members at opposite ends of the age spectrum—older adults and younger children. With a little advance preparation, you can make the holiday season more enjoyable for all.
Respect your elders
Having a plan is essential when hosting an older family member, especially those over age 85, says Sharon K. Ostwald, PhD, professor emerita at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Nursing.
“When we are talking about older people, particularly those who are frail and have some disabilities—whether it is vision or hearing or mobility or cognitive—that is when we particularly have to pre-think how we want to handle their visit. For the most part, older people look forward incredibly to these family gatherings—seeing the grandkids and watching everybody. You don't want to find yourself in a situation where the older adults are exhausted and everyone is irritable,” Ostwald says.
She suggests the following tips for a smoother visit.
- Offer choices and rest. “One of the things we sometimes tend to do when people come to our house is to plan nonstop activity,” Ostwald says. “But the older person is probably going to tire easier.” She suggests presenting options to older guests and letting them choose what they want to do. “Do not put pressure on them to go everywhere and play every game; let them decide,” she continues. “For older people, we need to plan for some rest periods and have a quiet sanctuary for them—a bedroom that is away from the living room if possible, a place where they can rest and put their feet up,” Ostwald says. If guests are staying overnight, choose a bedroom in the quietest part of the house near a bathroom, because they may need to get up in the night to go to the bathroom.
- Hazard-proof your home. If an older person is staying at your home overnight, place nightlights around the house in the bathroom, hallways and near the stairs to help light the way and prevent falls. “Older eyes don't adjust as well to the darkness and the surroundings are unfamiliar,” Ostwald says. Also keep the home as clutter-free as possible. “If we have a frail older person who is using a cane or walker, we need to make sure that there are areas they can walk through the house, without stumbling over packages and wrapping and little cars and toys,” she continues. Securely fasten throw rugs to the floor, be aware when dogs and cats are underfoot and clean up all spills promptly.
- Keep conversations one-on-one. “Sometimes older people at a large gathering seem to be less engaged in the conversation,” Ostwald says. “Part of that has to do with hearing. And if they have a hearing aid, oftentimes the hearing aid picks up all the external noise, and that makes it hard for them to focus on the conversation.” She suggests having one-on-one and small group conversations with older guests and using photo albums to jumpstart conversations. “The holidays also are potentially a really good time to learn some family history. This might be a good time to think about how we could actually video or audio tape grandma telling those family stories.”
And if your older guest starts ranting and raving about your children’s lack of manners, do your best to steer the conversation in a more positive direction. Ask Grandma to share her first memories of the holidays or Grandpa to talk about his first Christmas gift.
- Respect routines. Changes in routine can be difficult for older people, especially richer foods and different mealtimes, Ostwald says. Older people tend to eat earlier in the evening, eat smaller meals and eat more frequently. “Be aware that chronic illnesses, like diabetes or heart disease, may influence their need to avoid certain foods or eat at regular intervals,” she continues. Check in advance about special dietary needs so that you can plan to meet these needs.
- Be sensitive to their mood. The holidays may be bittersweet for an older person, who may be thinking about the spouse that is no longer there, or a child lost in the war, Ostwald says. “Be aware that it isn’t all happiness and laughter,” she says. “They may need some time alone, or maybe they would like to talk about family members who are no longer here. It can actually be good for them to talk about holidays past, or be able to tell their grandchildren about the grandfather that they will never know.”
Overwhelming for children
The whirlwind activity surrounding the holidays can be overwhelming for even the most even-tempered child, says child psychologist Cathy Guttentag, PhD, an assistant professor at the Children’s Learning Institute at UTHealth. Situations such as a simple argument over sharing a toy, or waiting in a long line at the store, can quickly escalate into full-blown meltdowns.
“When families are on vacation, things change—they may be on a different schedule, they may be sleeping in different places, or if they have relatives visiting, they may be asked to share a bedroom with guests,” Guttentag says. “Any of these changes in daily routine can both be exciting and stressful. Sometimes children have a more difficult time regulating behavior and keeping themselves focused and calm when they are dealing with that kind of change.”
She offers parents the following tips for a more pleasant holiday break with children:
- Check your stress level. “If parents are stressed about the holidays or traveling, then kids really pick up on that nonverbally and will react to the parent’s level of stress and anxiety,” Guttentag says. “So if you are anxious and irritable and overscheduled, that is going to impact your child as well.” She suggests avoiding overscheduling to reduce stress. "Sometimes fewer activities at a more relaxed pace, where you can really settle down and enjoy what you are doing is better than trying to cram it all in and dash from one party to another.”
- Know your child. Some children are easygoing, and love all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Others... not so much. “They are less flexible, more easily overwhelmed and more easily overstimulated,” Guttentag says. “If you have several children in the family, they may each react and cope in different ways. So think about what you know about your children, and what situations are challenging for them.”
Some children, especially teenagers, are more sensitive to teasing, which is considered an official sport in certain families. “Maybe your teenager is feeling sensitive at that point about how she looks, or whether he or she has a girlfriend or a boyfriend. You as a parent can be sensitive and anticipate that,” Guttentag says. “Talk with your child if she feels anxious about anything in particular and be prepared to step in and help change the conversation and take the pressure off your child to answer questions that she feels embarrassed about.”
- Set the scene. “I think it is important to prepare children for what the holiday schedule will be like—who is coming, where are those people going to sleep, what are you going to be expected to do or to share, and allow kids to participate in that planning process,” Guttentag says. “If you have a kid who just built this awesome Lego village or something that they are protective of, or anxious about sharing, maybe you can make a plan about how that thing can be protected or put away while relatives are visiting, and have them not be expected to share everything with everybody.”
To avoid an embarrassing scene when opening gifts, she also recommends teaching your children how to graciously accept a gift and express thanks even when they don’t like the present (I needed new socks, Aunt Wilma! Thanks!)
- Let them chill out. When all the activity gets to be too much, children, like adults, need to be alone. “So if there are times when your child needs to go off by himself, or with you, see if you can make an effort to be sensitive to that and make a way for that to happen,” Guttentag says. “Because children need some time to regroup and relax as well.”
- Stay consistent. Don’t let pressure from others change the way you parent, Guttentag says. “It is very hard to parent and discipline if you feel like everyone is watching you and your child is either making you feel embarrassed or guilty or is out of control,” she says. “Take him to some place quiet to talk. It may be as simple as providing some quiet time and a hug until he calms down. If not, offer acceptable choices and alternatives to whatever he’s doing that’s not working.
Kids need to be reminded of your expectations and given support to make better choices. Worst comes to worst, be prepared to cut your visit short and go home. Children let you know when they’ve had about all they can manage for the day. ”