Navigating the Holidays with Aging Parents

Author: Amanda Woodward

| Published on: December,15 | Viewed: 2524 times


Decades of research has found that social support is important for mental and physical health.  Support can also provide a buffer against the negative effects of stressful times, including the holiday season. Yes, the holidays are typically happy times, but for many that happiness can be bittersweet.  Older adults can feel particularly lonely and isolated this time of year because the season may highlight losses they have experienced such as the death of a spouse, the deaths of other relatives or friends, changes in their own health, or changes that have occurred in their community over time.  (Learn more about how to beat holiday isolation here).

Two of the most useful types of support you can give to your aging parents during the holiday season are emotional and practical. Emotional support - spending time with them and expressing your love and concern - assures your parent that they matter and belong.  

Practical help with holiday-related tasks can reduce the stress of holiday obligations, but can also be a way to involve them in the fun and help them feel needed.

Here are some suggestions for ways to provide emotional and practical support during the holidays:

  • Listen and understand when your aging parents want to talk, even if what they have to say is negative or sad.  

  • That means really listen.  Don’t interrupt.  Don’t rush in to fill silences no matter how long or uncomfortable they may be.

  • But it also means only listen.  As hard as it may be, don’t give advice unless they ask for it.

  • Involve them in your celebration in meaningful ways.  If they can prep vegetables sitting down, bring a cutting board and knife to the table.  Or maybe they can untangle lights or sort decorations.  If that’s too much for them, ask their opinions about where to place decorations and share stories about where the decorations came from ("I remember making this in the sixth grade!”) and past holidays ("Remember when the cat took a nap in the basket of warm dinner rolls?”).

  • Learn about more holiday activities for grandparents and grandchildren here.

  • Show family videos, look at photos, and reminisce.

  • Help them write holiday cards to their friends.

  • Take a drive to look at holiday lights with some of their favorite music playing on the radio.

  • Take them shopping for gifts to give. A well planned shopping day can be both practical and fun. Incorporate lunch at a favorite place or plan shopping around a holiday concert.

  • If that’s too much for them, help them shop online.

  • Learn more about getting through the holidays when an aging parent is sick here.

  • Help them wrap gifts and write notes to the gift recipients.

  • Provide transportation to parties, church services, and other holiday events they might otherwise miss.

  • If you live far away, have a virtual holiday party using Skype or Google Chat.  

  • If your parents are hosting a holiday party, offer to do the shopping, help with cleaning, or bring a dessert or decorations.  

  • If you are hosting, offer transportation, ask them to bring or do something, and include some of their favorite holiday traditions.

(And remember that they will still need help when the holidays are over.)


Visit the National Institute on Aging for hints on the holidays and caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.

Visit AARP for tips on the holidays and hearing impairment.

Visit Seniorly for more tips for engaging with loved ones during the holidays.

About Amanda Woodward

Amanda Toler Woodward, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. She does research on services and supports for older adults including racial and ethnic disparities in access to services and international comparisons of service systems. She writes about a wide range of topics related to aging research, social work, academia, and whatever else catches her fancy at

Other Articles written by Amanda Woodward

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