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K-State Today

December 6, 2011

In need of comfort and joy: Developing community of connections, meaningful relationships can make holidays better for nursing home residents

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

The holidays can be a tough time for residents of nursing homes, especially those who recently made the transition from living on their own, according to a Kansas State University expert on aging.

In some cases, nursing home residents may also be dealing with the loss of their lifelong partner and coming to terms with a long-term disability or chronic illness, said Laci Cornelison, a research assistant with the university's Center on Aging.

All of these factors combine to make day-to-day life emotionally trying for nursing home residents, and the holiday season can magnify feelings of loneliness, stress and grief that residents are often already experiencing, Cornelison said.

"The depression rate among institutionalized elders is around 50 percent," she said. "The holidays can be a trigger for increased symptoms of depression, likely because they are a time of observing long-standing traditions and getting together with family and loved ones. If this is no longer possible for the elder in a nursing home, symptoms of depression may worsen at this time of the year."

It's no secret that the rest of the population also often feels increasingly stressed around the holidays. The joys of the season also can come with the stress of gift shopping, preparing a large meal and coordinating family events, Cornelison said, adding the stress the rest of us feel during this time of the year can make the holidays even more difficult for nursing home residents.

"A compounding stress factor in the nursing home comes from looking at life through direct care staff members' eyes," Cornelison said. "Direct care workers are likely low paid and have families of their own. The holidays may bring on financial stress and worries about balancing work hours with spending quality time with family. This stress can be projected to residents living in nursing homes, worsening the feelings of despair for residents."

Cornelison said that nursing homes strive to reduce the holiday-related feelings of sadness that residents may feel, and that one of the ways they can do so is by helping residents find ways to ensure that their lives retain meaning and purpose.

"Empowering residents to give back to others during the holidays, as well as incorporating individual residents' traditions into the celebrations that go on in nursing homes can prevent some of the holiday blues," Cornelison said. "We try to get residents involved in planning holiday festivities so that the nursing home traditions are driven by the people who live there rather than by the nursing home."

Another way that nursing home staffers can alleviate feelings of depression around the holidays is by encouraging a family environment within the nursing home.

"If residents are invested in a community of connections, developing meaningful relationships with other residents and staff, then they will be less likely to focus on their problems and have a higher level of satisfaction," Cornelison said.

Cornelison also said it's important for nursing home staff to work with residents to ensure that they get to spend some quality time with their own families over the holidays.

"This requires a little upfront planning, but can have big payoffs for the residents' holiday experience," she said.