Kim Scott, LMFT



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November-December 2023

Member Columnist — Kim Scott, LMFT

Helping Our Older Clients Navigate
Their Changing Holiday Landscape

“Merry Christmas!” “Happy Hanukkah!” “What are you doing for the holidays?” It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? Maybe this is the case for some individuals, but for others, the joy and wonder of the holidays are not an actual reality.

These seemingly innocuous comments and ultra perky merriment can stir up a lot of pain for our older clients. The extra holiday cheer surrounding our clients can make them feel out-of-step with their community. This can intensify their pain and add to their feelings of isolation, shame, depression and anxiety. To help our older clients navigate the holiday season it is essential that we understand some of the common themes and struggles so that we can support and validate their experiences.

Some of these common themes include:

  • Loss. Loved ones may have died or moved away. They may be sharing holidays with in-laws, or family ties may have weakened. They may have lost beloved pets. Or may be grieving the loss of their youth, health or past holiday traditions. The loss does not need to be recent to hurt. Our client may be grieving the loss of a loved one from decades ago and is still sad and nostalgic during the holidays. We can help normalize this for our clients because often friends and family expect them to be “over it.” It’s okay and healthy for us to check in with our clients about any losses that might be coming up during this season. With all of the “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah” verbiage it is important that we let our clients know that the therapy room is a place where they can be holiday-cheer-free without judgment. We can also help our clients create and incorporate traditions into their holidays to honor lost loved ones.
  • Loneliness. Isolation can be particularly painful at this time of year. Part of the pain comes from the assumption that everyone else has family and friends to celebrate with. We can normalize this for our clients and help them make plans for the holidays that will be meaningful and enjoyable to them. These plans do not need to include friends of family. Plans can range from volunteering to feed the hungry, to celebrating at a senior center, to going on a vacation. Planning in advance can make a potentially lonely time less dreary and can help bring expectations in line with realty. We tend to be much more depressed and stressed when our reality is dramatically out of sync with our expectations.
  • Change. Change can be stressful even when the change is good, like when members are added to a family through marriage or births. These are wonderful events but our traditions and routines may need to change to accommodate them and CHANGE CAN BE HARD! One common change that our older clients may face is when their adult children begin their own families. This will most likely change our clients’ role in the holiday celebrations. As therapists, we can help our clients identify and put words to their feelings. We can help our clients express any sadness, fears about becoming irrelevant, anger for being left out, and embarrassment for even having these feelings. We can also help our clients decide if or when they want to communicate their feelings and thoughts with their adult children. Either can be healthy and productive options and we can help our clients determine the right answer for them and their family.
  • A New Normal. Similar to the changes listed above, getting older is a time of transition to a “new normal.” This new normal can be brought on by medical problems, chronic pain, limited mobility, and perhaps dementia. We can help our clients adjust to their new normal through therapeutic modalities like acceptance and commitment therapy, while watching for signs of depression in order to intervene early.
  • Stress. Holiday stress can come from change, strained relationships, extra financial pressures and/or decreased physical stamina. Our clients may have a difficult time setting boundaries with family and friends based on their current situation. For instance, a mom who traditionally hosts Hanukkah dinner for the entire family may no longer have the physical energy to do this. We can help our clients’ talk about their truths so that they can begin to create new holiday traditions that truly fit their abilities and desires. We can help our clients make a plan for the holidays that includes self-care on all levels.
  • Meaning and Purpose. So often the holidays are reduced to ‘Hallmark’ events…big, expensive, overwhelmingly busy and impersonal. This can leave our older clients feeling empty. We can help our clients retrieve or find a new meaning or purpose for their holidays. To begin this process, we might ask our clients to share some of their most dear or cherished holiday memories. And, from these memories we can help our clients identify what made these memories special. What core values did these special holidays embrace? Was it time with loved ones? Or the religious significance? Or carrying on traditions? Or giving? Then we can help our clients explore new ways they can bring this meaning or purpose into their holidays.

The holidays can be a challenging time for many individuals, and therapists should take the time to understand and acknowledge how the holiday season many impact their clients’ mental well-being. Taking an active role in assessing mental health during the holiday season will help ensure that clients get the support they need. Therapists can provide additional resources or referrals if needed and help create a safe space for clients to express concerns, worries, or feelings they may be experiencing. A little extra attention can make all the difference in helping clients stay healthy throughout the holiday season.

Kim Scott, LMFT (MFT21184) is a licensed marriage, family and child therapist who practices in Granada Hills. She has a blog, Therapeutic Musings, at Ms. Scott can be reached at 818.309.7780 or Her office is located at 17402 Chatsworth Street, Suite 104, Granada Hills, CA 91344.

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San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists