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Celebrating the Holidays in Senior Living: Assisted Living Christmas Party Ideas, Planning, and Safety Tips

By Rebecca Schier-AkameluNovember 22, 2021
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Whether your loved one has recently moved into their senior living community or lived there for a few years, the holiday season brings up treasured memories and thoughts of family traditions. If you find yourself wondering how to incorporate your loved one’s favorite traditions now that they’ve moved, you’re not alone. And, with some communities still experiencing pandemic-related restrictions, this holiday season requires thoughtful planning.

Read on for our top tips on how to have a successful holiday season with your senior loved one.

Include your loved one in holiday planning

Many family celebrations look similar from year to year. You know your uncle will host a New Year’s Eve party, and you know that your mother will bring herring. It’s not always possible to replicate past celebrations, but holidays can still be celebrated with festivities and joy.

Instead of feeling limited by past traditions, discuss with your senior family member new ways to celebrate the holidays in their senior living community. Treat them like any other adult, and don’t make assumptions about what they would prefer. Let them help plan the festivities, whether they choose to spend the holidays in their senior living community or somewhere different.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, some communities may require your loved one to quarantine after an off-site event, like a holiday party at a family member’s home. You and your loved one will need to weigh the risk and relative isolation they may experience if they have to quarantine alone after the holidays.

Have a backup plan

For any number of reasons, your first choice for a holiday activity may change. Your loved one may decide they want to celebrate in their senior living community instead of going out, or you may have a canceled flight or illness. Try to stay flexible if your loved one has to remain at their community over the holidays with the following tips:

  • Plan a holiday craft idea for your senior relative, and bring some decorations from home to their community.
  • Consider using a shopping service like Shipt to deliver Christmas crafts for seniors or gifts to their community.
  • Ask your loved one’s community about Zoom meetings if you’re unable to make it in for a visit.

Celebrating in the senior living community

If this is your loved one’s first holiday season in their community, they’ll have an easier time getting to know their new neighbors. Kathleen Leonard, a Senior Living Advisor at A Place for Mom, explains that seniors moving to a senior living community actually have an advantage during the holiday season. The many events, special meals, and general goodwill make it a perfect time to become acclimated to the new community and make new friends.

“Moving into a community before the holidays is way better than waiting until January. The early part of the year slows down, and everybody’s pretty quiet. Whereas, if you move somebody in during the holiday season, they’re going to be exposed to all the different things that the community is doing,” says Leonard.

In Riverside County, California, many communities are trying to have a “normal” holiday season with plenty in entertainment and activities, Leonard explains. “There’s tree-trimming parties, gingerbread house making, bus tours and rides to view Christmas lights in the neighborhoods, and choirs come in pretty much every day.”

Keep in mind that every community will do things differently and have their own guidelines for how you can participate in community events with your loved one.

COVID-friendly holiday activities

If you or your family are still practicing social distancing, consider virtual and distanced options that you can do together, even if your senior relative is far away. Angela Martinez, executive director at Traditions at Reagan Park, a senior living community in Avon, Indiana, offers residents a fun way to participate in family traditions.

“We’ll ask people to collect their favorite recipes, and we’ll cook and share them as a group. Sometimes, families will even drop off supplies for their loved one to make signature dishes,” Martinez says.

To increase family connections, you can even share in the fun over Zoom while your loved one cooks or eats. Get creative — there’s no one way to do a virtual activity. Martinez once even planned a virtual holiday party for Traditions at Reagan Park.

“We set up a Zoom call with families and did a sing-along with one of our therapists who plays the guitar. Everyone had hot chocolate and enjoyed decorations.”

At Astor Place, an Enlivant assisted living community in Astoria, Oregon, residents are used to participating in virtual events. Brandy Sweeney-Evrard, a life enrichment coordinator and mentor at Astor Place, explains that local groups reach out frequently to offer caroling. Since volunteer groups can’t come inside, Zoom is the next best thing.

“This year we’ll be doing another virtual holiday read aloud to a local preschool that we partner with. Last year the residents donned silly hats that really cracked the kids up,” remembers Sweeney-Evrard.

Within Astor Place, Sweeney-Evrard has a full calendar of events starting with a decorating party. She also offers an artificial tree that residents can put up and decorate in their room. She hosts weekly Christmas crafts for seniors, such as making pool noodle wreaths, pine-cone Christmas trees, and cinnamon-stick ornaments.

“I really try to make the holidays as festive and fun as possible. It may be overload, but I want the residents to feel extra special and loved.”

Special holiday considerations

Many communities offer events that cater to the religions and customs of the seniors who live there. If your relative celebrates Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or New Year’s, ideally their community will have some celebrations in place to honor these important traditions. Check out the following ideas you can do for your senior loved one, according to their distinct holiday traditions:

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Hanukkah

Bring a dreidel (or several) with you and play with your loved one and their neighbors. You might even get the opportunity to teach others about your family traditions. If you’re going to play dreidel, you’ll definitely need to bring gelt with you! Not only are these chocolate coins a tasty treat for the winner, but you can easily incorporate them into other games as prizes or game pieces.

Lighting the Menorah offers a spiritual connection. Help your loved one find a suitable Menorah for their community. If they can’t have real candles, you could craft your own Menorah and use battery-operated tea lights, or find an electric Menorah your loved one can safely use.

Kwanzaa

To help your loved one celebrate Kwanzaa, bring them streamers of black, red, and green. You’ll also need some dried corn, a mat, crops, candles, and a candle holder. Traditionally, the youngest child lights the candles, so bring grandchildren with you to celebrate if possible. If visiting isn’t possible, you can set up a Zoom call so your loved one can watch their grandchild light the candle.

New Year’s

Whether or not your senior relative wants to stay up until midnight, there’s plenty of ways to celebrate. Leonard mentioned that some seniors help make a New Year’s ball for their community and watch it drop as they count down to midnight.

For a touch of whimsy, you can’t go wrong with funny glasses and hats to ring in the New Year. To take things to the next level, suggest using an instant camera or renting a photo booth and buying fun photo booth props that your loved one and their friends can use to create special memories inside their community.

“We’ll have a New Year’s Eve party with hats, confetti poppers, drinks, live entertainment, and tasty appetizers. I’ll set up a photo booth and encourage residents to dress up. We usually do this around 3:30, so we count down with London while watching fireworks on YouTube, with a champagne or sparkling cider toast,” says Sweeney-Evrard.

Celebrating outside the community

If your loved one wants to leave their community to celebrate with you, make sure you’re comfortable providing them with the assistance they need.

Safety

When looking at a possible party venue, view things from your senior relative’s point of view. Consider the following:

  • Is this space accessible if your loved one uses a walker or wheelchair?
  • Will the bathroom be easy and safe for your relative to use alone, or will someone need to assist them?
  • Are there any hazardous areas such as uneven floors, steps without rails, or slick flooring?

You’ll also want to consider COVID safety and be well-versed in what your relative’s community requires once they return from visiting. Make appointments for COVID tests if you need to show a negative result, and find out if your senior relative will need to take a test before returning to their community.

Involving others at the community

Hopefully your loved one has made some friends and wants to include them in celebrations. Some seniors may not get the opportunity to celebrate the holidays with their families, which can make these friend connections all the more special.

If you’re bringing decorations or holiday crafting supplies to your loved one, bring extra material so other residents can get involved. Consider inviting a resident who is alone during the holidays to join in your family celebrations, or offer to throw a party for the entire community.

For inspiration, try a quick search on Pinterest for the holiday and age group you’re interested in. Whatever you do will be appreciated and create lasting memories.

Gift giving

No matter what holiday your family celebrates, almost all holiday traditions include gift giving. Meaningful options for your loved one could include a photo album or scrapbook, or even a new board game that others in the community can enjoy, too.

If your loved one has Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related conditions, consider a gift designed to reduce agitation and bring calming energy into their space. An oil diffuser, fidget toy, or mess-free art set can all help bring them joy and relaxation.

You might also consider holiday or Christmas gifts for the assisted living staff in your loved one’s community. Before offering, make sure you ask whether the staff are allowed to receive gifts. If they can, options for the entire staff could include a gift basket of snacks, a sandwich buffet for lunch, or a plant that everyone can enjoy.

With your loved one now living in a senior living community, plus added considerations of COVID restrictions, your holiday celebrations might look different now than they did a few years ago. But, you can take this opportunity to create exciting new traditions and still make fulfilling, lasting memories for years to come.

Author
Rebecca Schier-Akamelu

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