Christmas ball hanging on a Christmas tree

Being festive and mindful in the era of COVID-19

This holiday season is going to be different. Few of us would have thought that at some point in our lives we would be celebrating winter holidays during a global pandemic. Yet, in difficult times humans always find ways to adapt, support each other and continue those traditions that define them and form part of their cultural and personal identity. We worked together, learned to live with the pandemic and now we are entering this holiday season which will be very different from what we were used to but will retain its spirit and its importance for us and our loved ones.

It is a time when people come together and share love, joy and hope. But how can you be close to your loved ones when you can’t give them a hug or sit at the same table and share food with them? Luckily humans are resilient and adaptive and if there’s one thing this pandemic taught us, it is how to be close to the ones we love while staying physically separated in order to protect them. Once again, it has been shown that social cohesion can overcome physical distancing as love and care can reach out across vast distances.

We had time to prepare and we also live in an era where there are many tools that allow us to communicate easily and intuitively while staying safe. Video chat services have become an increasingly large part of our social life and even people with limited technological familiarity can easily use them with just a little help. We can join our loved ones remotely in decorating the house and make sure our favorite ornament gets the best spot, on top of the fireplace just like every year.  We can be content that our family won’t miss on that special holiday dish they’ve been waiting for by taking them through all the intricacies of our secret recipe. More importantly we can see the smiles of our loved ones when they open their presents!

Technology is not the only way to connect though. This holiday season is a good time to revisit favorite traditions like creating hand-made holiday cards and writing letter to loved ones. We can embark on festive projects like knitting Christmas sweaters or crafting hand-made tree ornaments for the whole family. We can make sure we cook enough cookies for everyone and have them delivered in a safe way. We can exchange our favorite books or even run a holiday-themed book club where we can combine a traditional activity with the use of technology to get together and discuss the books we’ve read.

As with all things, in this special holiday season it is important to ensure that we find our own ways to adapt and celebrate. After all, what matters is experiencing the spirit of the holidays and sharing joy and happiness with our loved ones. With so many options for adapting our holiday activities while staying safe, it is important to go with those that are meaningful to us and resonate with our personality, our lifestyle and the ways we connect with our loved ones.

What can I do? 

  • As an older adult: Accept that these holidays will be different and communicate with your loved ones. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from your family whether it is a video-call to hear your grandchildren singing Christmas carols or a no-contact delivery of your favorite food. More importantly don’t miss out on the joy of giving and caring for your family whether by making sure everyone gets your holiday cookies or by calling your grandchildren to tell them their favorite festive stories.
  • As a relative: Acknowledge the limitations imposed by COVID-19 but also be creative and think outside the box. While you may not be able to do all your favorite holiday activities, you can ensure that you and your loved ones experience the spirit of the holidays and the full range of emotions and human contact that comes with it. Communicate with your family to find new ways to share the holiday spirit in a manner that is meaningful and resonates with everyone involved. 
  • As an assisted living / nursing home owner: Ask your residents what helps them enjoy the holidays while staying safe. Expect different residents to have different preferences. Reach out to the wider community; maybe that choir that visited your facility every year to sing Christmas carols would like to perform online and still bring the joy of music to your residents. Facilitate contact and communication between residents and their loved ones by setting up virtual meetings and ensuring that residents can receive gifts safely. Promote activities inside your facility that allow for safe interaction between residents such as working together to create a book of festive stories or recipes.
Senior couple with backpacks walking on the street

Physical distancing, social cohesion

2020 will probably be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The whole world has paused in horror watching the virus spread. Fear, uncertainty and often misinformation followed in its wake. COVID-19 has affected our lives at every level. Our social and family lives, our careers and even our physical and mental well-being have been impacted. As the initial shock subsided, we had to content with redefining a new “normal” for our lives and adjusting to it.

Times of crisis tend to have a peculiar effect on people and societies. They often act as amplifiers, amplifying the good along with the bad. Fear, inequities and systemic issues are amplified along with kindness, courage and social cohesion. The dramatic changes brought by COVID-19 can disproportionally affect older adults and their caregivers. Older adults have to content with social isolation and fear for their health. Furthermore, pervasive ageist attitudes affecting healthcare provision can limit older adults’ access to care which is often reserved for younger people. At the same time, caregivers can feel powerless since physical distancing guidelines may prevent them from being close to their loved ones. They also have to content with their own fears and uncertainty while managing the fear of their loved ones.

The most common way to stop a virus from spreading is ensuring that people are not in close proximity with each other. This very important public health measure has been named “social distancing”. While the measure itself is necessary the term used to describe it is somewhat unfortunate. While staying physically apart from each other to combat the spread of the virus we should come closer to each other in a deeper way. We should communicate more, care more and empathize more with each other. In essence we should become more social while maintaining physical distance. As humans we crave contact and closeness so we must make up for the lack of physical closeness by focusing on our communication with each other.

The first step towards effective communication is recognizing our own feelings even if they are scary or perplexing. Honest discussions about our feelings, which will probably include fear and uncertainty, can help us and our loved ones. More importantly they can help us understand that we are all in this together and dealing with the same issues. Communication however should not be limited to discussing unpleasant feelings. We all enjoy having fun with our friends and family and nowadays technology can help us spend quality time together even when we are apart. Including virtual get-togethers with friends and family in our daily schedule can help us overcome loneliness and improve our mood and well-being. It’s a good time to get creative! Virtual book clubs, board games nights or tea breaks not only bring us closer to our loved ones but they also add some structure to our daily life. More importantly, they reaffirm our ability to control our lives even during times of crisis.

Retaining control of our lives means retaining all those things we enjoy. Maintaining our daily schedule (as much as possible) and continuing to invest time in what we enjoy is crucial. We must rethink our hobbies and favorite activities in light of the necessary public health measures but this doesn’t mean we can’t engage in them. We should think out of the box and change the way we engage with them. From focusing on those aspects of them that can be done safely to using technology to make up for the physical distancing, we can redefine them and explore aspects of them we hadn’t considered before. Perhaps we will come out of this crisis with new ideas, skills or interests.

Our world may still feel scary and uncertain but remember that we can stay informed without succumbing to panic, we can be close to each other even when we are miles apart, we can change our habits while retaining what defines ourselves and, most importantly, we can keep each other safe and loved through this crisis.

What can I do?

  • As an older adult: Reach out to friends and family. Your fears and concerns are valid and there are people who want to be close to you and help you through these difficult times. Try to maintain a daily schedule that includes mentally challenging activities and physical exercise. Stay informed and follow all safety guidelines. If safety guidelines feel overwhelming, try to integrate them in your daily routine and use visual cues and reminders. Monitor your health and contact your doctor if you have any concerns.
  • As a relative: Communicate honestly with your loved ones. Be open about your fears and acknowledge their concerns. At the same time provide reassurance and practical assistance whenever possible. Use technology to connect with friends and family and assist older adults in the use of technology for communication. Promote exercise and contact with nature in a safe manner. Dancing to a favorite song or watching the birds in the garden can be a welcome break and a boost to mental and physical health.
  • As an assisted living / nursing home owner: Ensure that residents can communicate with loved ones through the use of technology. Offer activities that promote physical exercise in a safe manner. Inform residents about upcoming changes in their daily lives and explain why these changes are necessary for their well-being. Implement regular health monitoring for residents and staff.