When You Can't Be Home for the Holidays

Senior couple talking to loved ones on phone.

"I'll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me … "

This favorite holiday song, popularized by crooner Bing Crosby, put into words the desire of many Americans to spend the winter holidays with family. Whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or another winter celebration, bringing the generations together is often part of the tradition. Families brave winter storms and crowded airports to be together with their loved ones.

But remember that Crosby's classic song ends with a twist, when the singer reveals that he will be home only in his dreams. The song was written for World War II soldiers, but it's meaningful any time we can't spend this special time with all the people we love. Perhaps we have a job that requires us to be on duty during the holidays, or money is too tight for expensive plane tickets this year.

Our changing families also make it harder to assemble every December. Generations no longer live in the same town, and family ties are more complicated: Grandma and Grandpa may be divorced, perhaps remarried. The spouses of their adult children also may hail from different parts of the country, so those couples may alternate holidays between the two locales. And even if you live in your longtime home, Great-grandma may have moved to a retirement community in Florida.

Sadly, these complex logistics mean that the oldest family members aren't always able to spend the holidays with family. When that's the case, it's important to set aside time in your busy holiday schedule to help them feel remembered, honored, and brought into the spirit of the holidays.

Here are some suggestions for creating a sense of holiday togetherness, even from afar:

Meaningful holiday gifts. Is a tie for Grandpa or gloves for Grandma really the best gift? Often older relatives would prefer something more personal. How about a photo album with the latest pictures of the children and grandchildren—or a digital picture frame to provide cheer for the room? Youngsters can create a craft project or bake holiday cookies to send, along with a handmade holiday card. Remember that it can take some time to pull this type of gift together, so start early.

Holiday phone calls. Many of us call our relatives to wish them a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah. But as often happens, these calls can feel rushed. Granddad might call just as the kids are opening their presents, or at the moment when the holiday dinner is on the table. Choose a time of day when everyone is more relaxed, and let your loved one know what time you will call. That way you can choreograph the call so everyone can take turns sharing holiday greetings.

Video chats. If you haven't tried Skype or other videoconferencing technology, this could be a great time to establish a connection of this type with your loved one. "The future is now!" said one grandfather upon watching and chatting with his grandkids on Christmas morning. Just as with a phone call, set aside a good time for your session so it doesn't seem rushed. During those few minutes, encourage everyone to set aside what they're doing and focus on the elder family member. Perhaps children could sing a song—or show off the gift Grandpa sent them? (Of course, that doesn't take the place of a nice thank-you note, another way to show appreciation.)

Social media. If your loved one is on Facebook, join the legions of people who are posting Facebook holiday greetings. Put a nice message and perhaps some photos on their Facebook wall. Your loved one's other Facebook friends will be able to see your greeting, making it one of those "ask me about my grandchildren" moments! It would be nice for teens and young adults in the family also to post—but, if like many young people, they're skittish about intergenerational social media, offer to let them post a message using your account.

Help arrange alternate plans for your loved one. It might be that your loved ones are plenty busy already. If they live in a retirement community, for example, the facility may offer a full schedule of holiday events. But be sure to ask. Perhaps their faith community has special holiday services and gatherings. Find out what the local senior center has to offer. If your loved one would like to volunteer at a children’s party or holiday event for needy members of the community, arrange for transportation if necessary.

Talk about an upcoming visit. If your loved one doesn't live in your community, plan an alternative visit soon, if possible. Discussing the fun you will have is a real mood-booster. You might even plan a trip with your loved one, if they can travel. A travel guidebook to your destination would make a perfect holiday gift! Or surprise them with tickets to an event that will happen in their area while you will be there. This will help overcome the disappointment of not seeing you for the holiday—soon you'll make your own special day!

If your loved one uses home care services …

Many Caring Right at Home readers know the benefits of professional in-home care. Don't forget that services can include a little holiday magic! In-home caregivers can transport your loved one to holiday parties at the senior center or their faith community. The caregiver can help your loved one address and send holiday cards and shop for holiday gifts. In-home caregivers provide personal care such as bathing, dressing and grooming—and that includes helping Mom dress up in her festive finery for a special holiday event! Perhaps Mom and Dad would like to have a small gathering of their own for some special friends? The caregiver can help them prepare delicious treats, with attention to any dietary restrictions the healthcare provider has prescribed. Housekeeping services provided by in-home caregivers keep the home ready for company, and the caregiver can help with holiday decorations. And this is the time of year when caregivers and clients often share moments talking about their families and traditions—a special, caring companionship that provides a vital human touch.

Professional in-home care agencies know that these little touches are just as important as the more routine care and wellness services they provide throughout the year. Talk to your loved one's home care agency about other ways you can help your loved one have happy holidays.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.