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By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues
Just a year ago, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic transformed the way we celebrated the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Normally a personal gathering day with family and close friends, the cooler weather pushed people inside where the virus more easily spreads, forcing families to meet on Zoom for turkey dinner and catching up.
Today, COVID-19 vaccines have made it safer to bring families together to this annual holiday gathering. With the nation’s borders now open and 195 million Americans fully vaccinated and new travel guidelines in place, AAA predicts more than 53.4 million people are expected to travel to reunite with their loved ones, the highest single-year increase since 2005.
But like previous Thanksgiving celebrations, not every family gathering will be as serene as the one portrayed in Noman Rockwell’s iconic Freedom from Want painting that appeared in the March 6, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Thoughts of attending the upcoming gathering might just tear open psychological wounds and bring to the surface bad memories, triggering stress, tension, and even depression.
Increased family demands and obligations that begin before Thanksgiving and continue through Christmas, and finally New Year’s Eve, can bring about the holiday blues, sad feelings specific to the holiday season. While there is no formal diagnosis of the holiday blues, these feelings are quite real for some people. Usually, it is felt by people who are going through the first holiday after a loss of a significant person in their life or a bad childhood memory from past the holidays.
Holiday stresses brought about by last minute shopping for gifts, baking and cooking, cleaning and hosting parties, and even having unrealistic expectations can trigger depression. It can also bring about a feeling of malaise, tiredness, headaches, excessive drinking and overeating and even difficulty in sleeping.
COVID-19 and the Holiday Blues
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there was less stress because people were not doing face-to-face gatherings, says Elaine Rodino, Ph.D., psychologist in private practice for over 41 years in California and Pennsylvania. “But it still came up because they were worried about Uncle Morrie showing up on Zoom,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic is overshadowing this year’s holiday season yet again, says Rodino, who is former president of the American Psychological Associations’ Division 46 (Society for Media Psychology & Technology), and Division 42 (Psychologists in Independent Practice), the Los Angles County Association, and the Central Pennsylvania Psychological Association.
“There’s plenty of mitigating news this year about inflation and how prices are higher on almost all items including Thanksgiving Day dinner. People having financial issues this year can let themselves feel better by realizing that they are not alone. Many people are suffering economically through no fault of their own,” Rodino says.
“We’ve been experiencing many new ways of having to think about things,” adds Rodino, urging people to “be flexible and find new ways to enjoy life with less dependence on material things.”
According to Rodino, preplanning your visit can be the best way to reduce holiday blues. “Give thought to what you’re expecting and determine if your expectations are valid or just wishful thinking. Then decide to literally “make the best of it” by focusing on the good things and the good reasons why you’re making this visit,” she advises.
Putting the Kibosh on Hot Topics at Dinner
What can you do to steer away from heated political debates or sensitive issues including “why aren’t you vaccinated?”
Stressful situations at Thanksgiving gatherings can be reduced if you give thought to what to expect in visiting with your relatives. “Plan ahead on how you’re going to avoid being taken down a rabbit hole of controversy. How are you are going to pivot away from conversations when you see them going in a dangerous direction?”
Rodino adds, “Remember who they are and how they think. Since it’s only a limited time visit, try to remain neutral. Don’t try to change anyone’s thinking. Things usually go badly when people try to convince others to think the way they do. That never goes well.”
You can plan ahead about how you will handle these conversations. “Do not fight! There will be no winner. Talk about sports, the weather (not climate change), how delicious the food is, even how cute the dog is,” recommends Rodino.
“It’s best to accept that everyone has their own opinions (even if some seem very bizarre). Just think to yourself that you will soon be going back to your own home. You do not need to try to convince anyone about anything,” adds Rodino.
“When feeling stress, it’s important to realize that it’s time limited. Take care of yourself, whether it’s exercising, taking a warm bath, or just taking a break and reading a book. “There needs to be just some time that you just check out from the holiday stress part,” she says.
The holiday blues should begin to fade away by the first couple of weeks in January, notes Rodino. “So, if people are still feeling that, like say the second, third week of January, then they really should talk with a psychologist, because there could be issues that really need to be sorted out and processed,” she says.
With the ongoing pandemic we need to create new ways of doing things, says Rodino, noting that “People need to become creative and think up new ways to celebrate.”
As to compiling other strategies to cope with the holiday blues, Rodino suggests Googling ideas for surviving the pandemic holidays. “There’s something there for everyone,” she says.
Depression and Suicidal Thoughts
During this time of year, some may even feel a little depressed or have suicidal thoughts. Losses of all types can weigh heavily on anyone, but loss from COVID-19 has tragically impacted on so many and we can now add the pandemic to the challenges many face along with unemployment, experiencing painful chronic illnesses, or just feeling isolated from others. Sometimes, you aren’t ready for professional help from a doctor or mental health professional. Sometimes, you just need someone to talk to.
Think about calling The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to listening to those in need through its nonjudgment befriending hotline/listening line program serving all of the state’s 39 cities and towns.
Executive Director, Denise Panichas, of the Rhode Island branch, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people no matter the caller’s issues or status. “You don’t need insurance, you don’t need to be in crisis, you don’t need to be in professional care, you don’t need a diagnosis to call. Most importantly, conversations are free, confidential and anonymous.
And, Panichas notes, for those in professional care, Samaritan volunteers can be there to listen when family, friends and professionals are not available.
Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much-needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders. Caregiving is both rewarding but most caregivers don’t want to talk about the stress to family and friends. Caregivers don’t want to be a bother to anyone. Caregivers need to know, however, that they are never a bother to our Listening line volunteers.
This year, The Samaritans partnered with Rhode Island Meals on Wheels to share information about the availability of the Listening Line services to homebound seniors. Family members are encouraged to share The Samaritans telephone number with seniors who are family members living alone, or even for those seniors living in facilities – most have private phones and they can call, too.
The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community, or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”
Suicide prevention education is still a very important feature of the agency’s mission. For persons in need of more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website, http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.
Holiday giving to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island is always welcomed. Donations can be made online at its website or by mail to: The Samaritans of Rhode Island, P.O. Box 9086, Providence Rhode Island 02940.
Emergency? Call 911. Need to talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll free in RI (1-800) 365-4044._____
Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly: Vol 1, and its sequel, Taking Charge: Vol 2 More Stories on Aging Boldly, go to herbweiss.com.
Good job Herb — how’s Molly?
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