Celebrating the Holidays in a Retirement Community

As I leaned down to release the brake on Pat’s wheelchair, I realized my “bunch of purple grapes” costume might not have been the most practical choice for the Halloween party at the retirement community. I’d pinned twenty balloons to my clothing, making navigation difficult. Still, the crowd clapped and cheered as the Brain Fitness Coordinator in costume as “bunch of green grapes” and I twirled down the path during the costume parade. People who live and work in the retirement community and children from the neighboring school took turns showing off their costumes. The Dance/Movement Therapist led everyone in making his or her spookiest sounds and movements. I read a Ukrainian ghost story to the crowd. We all danced to Monster Mash. I reflected upon the event later, the first of the season’s holiday bashes. What is the role of holiday celebration in a retirement community? How can celebrating the holidays be a meaningful source of engagement, rather than entertainment?

Celebratory, not childish

Aging settings that promote culture change recognize the importance of choosing language that does not infantilize older adults. Holiday celebrations can easily go the route of becoming childish, so holiday event facilitators need to look for ways to maintain dignity and remember that this is a party for adults, while still allowing for a child-like sense of play that many people enjoy during the holidays. This consideration is important in many aspects of the event, including language, music choices, and decorations. At our Halloween event, the Dance/Movement Therapist encouraged the participants to create their own creepy environment, rather than passively listen to sound effects on tape.

Maintaining a sense of home

Each individual has his or her own set of cultural and familial traditions for the holidays. Event coordinators can encourage the extension of some of these traditions by being genuinely curious and asking questions about what kinds of traditions are important and which holidays they celebrate according to their religions and cultures. Maybe one woman loved to make handmade place cards for Thanksgiving dinner when she lived at home—can she do the same for her neighbors in her new environment?

Sensitivity to life changes

Many older adults experience sadness during the holidays due to memories of loved ones who have passed and shifts in role from host to guest. During group events, facilitators should be sensitive to emotions that may arise. In the middle of a Christmas carol during a holiday celebration last year, I noticed a woman crying in the back of the room. I sat with her and held her hand. I was careful not to ask her to stop crying, which could invalidate her feelings. The tears gradually stopped anyway, as she squeezed my hand and shared a memory of a family Christmas with me. What else should be considered during holiday celebrations? “For more on meaningful engagement with older adults, take a look at Is It Art Therapy? Distinguishing Art Therapy from Arts & CraftsDancing Through Dementia: Application for non-Dance/Movement Therapists, and Intergenerational Programming: Linking Generations in Service and Knowledge.” Thanks to Elyse Baylis for editing this post and Sarah_Ackerman for the photo.  

2 Comments

  • Lena Liberto

    I think that this is a very important topic, and you’ve raised excellent points. It is important to respect elders during what can be a difficult time for them. By treating them as adults rather than children, and acknowledging the life change that they are undergoing I think those are great approaches towards a happy winter season. Great article, very informative and important information for families, professionals, and care givers to read.

  • Sue Human

    Katherine, All of your blog shows such wisdom and insight. I am on my way on Sunday to spend time with my mom in a nursing home. Unfortunately, she is currently in the hospital. Most of the people there are not intellectually together anymore. However, I love lsitting and talking to them and learning of their history. I am so proud of you for having that sensitive, empathetic side. Keep up the good work. I made some little favors for my mom to give at the holidays and not only was she thrilled to give, but all were so appreciative to get a little treat. thanks again for sharing your talents with our aging generation. Mrs. Human

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