A Christmas survival guide for retiring types

Reclaim the season from the little ones with some planning – and the odd nap

Exercise, water and a well-timed nap can offset most of Christmas’s associated excesses. Photograph: Thinkstock

Exercise, water and a well-timed nap can offset most of Christmas’s associated excesses. Photograph: Thinkstock


Christmas is a time of strong emotions and high expectations. It’s a time to reflect on lost loved ones, and to survive and, with luck, recover from the stress of shopping, spending and preparing. In childhood, time seemed to stretch into the infinite future and Christmases were separated by an eternity, but as we grow older most people feel a distinct acceleration in the passage of time.

Christmas is essentially about implanting happy memories into children before they grow up to realise how not-great life can be. So ignore the health warnings and reality checks that you can see in the Yuletide mirror. Can older people retrieve a meaningful connection with the festive season and, if so, how?

1. Recognise that it will soon be upon us. However ambivalent we may be, however we long for a diversion from screaming grandchildren, Christmas is happening and preparations are required to avoid a loss of momentum and being on a permanent back foot in relation to some essential tasks. After all, Christmas melts the misery of a long dark winter and what better antidote to the winter blues than a splash of sparkle and colour?

2. As we prepare for the 12-day shutdown, a sense of positive pessimism may be prudent, as well as being armed with the latest weather predictions. It being midwinter, we may face snow and ice. Hence, having stocked up on extra provisions to ensure the essentials are well covered, we may give some thought to ordering medication from our pharmacy well in advance of Christmas Eve.

Having the boiler serviced before winter’s onset may seem fatalistic but is infinitely better than leaving innumerable voice messages for emergency repair services that turn out to be less contactable than their ads suggest.

3. Compiling a Christmas diary or list of essential tasks may be very helpful in shifting us into gear when we have finally acknowledged the imminence of the season. How many cards do we send this year? Do we want to write our phone numbers after our signature, or include a more personal greeting to invite further contact throughout the year, which may be useful in dispelling moments of isolation when the 12 days of Christmas have passed? Apart from purchasing exorbitantly priced gifts for our loved ones, who do we really want to thank for their support to us throughout the year? The pharmacist, perhaps?

4. Gifts, received or donated, can make or break a season that has become sadly dominated by all things commercial. When giving to significant others, be sure to judge the gift according to the person’s tastes or interests without imposing your own. Enclosing a gift receipt can redeem the more risky purchases. Gift tokens are perfectly acceptable and online shopping can save hassle, time and money, but do remember to clear the internet search history if you’re using your son or daughter’s device to purchase their gift.

5. Consider writing a list of tasks that will definitely, positively, be postponed until the new year. This will not only fill the empty diary when our personal trainer or physiotherapist is unavailable but will avoid the unnecessary stress we impose on ourselves to get everything done in that final Armageddon-like week before Christmas.

6. Set a tone of openness by having frank discussions about our personal expectations and practical arrangements for Christmas. This can include gift preferences for something essential such as a fuel voucher, help with the decorations, or even dinner or transport. Personal care may also be hard to come by when many support services such as day centres simply shut down, and organising a family rota is prudent in these circumstances.

7. When the day arrives, enter into the spirit of the season by participating in festive rituals, religious services or Christmas events. This is the time to let go of the stress of recent weeks and recover the true essence of past Christmases, as well as spontaneously giving and receiving words and deeds of festive cheer.

8. For those remembering a recent bereavement, Christmas may seem like a day to be endured. It is important to acknowledge the loss, to talk about the deceased person, to share memories and even do something that would have made your loved one smile.

Lighting a candle will honour their memory and illuminate the void that has been left behind, and connect us with a poignant past and a spiritual future as we end the year.

9. Communicating with loved ones is the essence of Christmas and new technology may make this easier, especially for people overseas. A complacency and a tendency to make less effort to have face-to-face contact should be avoided, as many older people may see a text message as a poor substitute for a heart-to-heart on the phone.

Above all, most older people dislike the stereotyped view of old age as being equated with loneliness and isolation or a need for charity, and also hate being a burden on others. Christmas communication, therefore, should be more than just a time-consuming duty or a necessary therapy for adult children to enact. It should be a prelude to the regular bonding between generations throughout the year.

10. Food and the variety and quantity of it is the substance that binds people. Food preparation requires military precision in its planning, timing and delivery to avoid the excesses of hunger and overindulgence. Succumbing to intoxication can obliterate efforts to bite tongues, utter niceties and generally be diplomatic during what may seem a long, drawn-out culinary incarceration. Exercise, water and the well-timed and socially acceptable nap can offset most of the associated excesses.

11. Consider whether circumstances allow changing your Christmas routine and traditions. How about going away for Christmas or having your dinner in a different venue, opting for a vegetarian or alternative menu, or having a meal with neighbours if an invite rolls in? It’s never too late to construct a new narrative, diversion or theme for this time of year and your spring social life may well blossom in the process.

12. The best Christmas virtues to cultivate and put into practice are enthusiasm, humour and a sense of supreme patience.

Although some may perceive the departure from routine as a burden, and others may perennially have impossibly high expectations of the time of year, it is a time to count blessings and indulge in a little nostalgia as we remind ourselves that we should stop and reflect on the relationships that we have enjoyed and continue to enjoy and how they can be nurtured.

Christmas carries many obligations and demands which, with a little pre-planning, can be more easily borne and even enjoyed.

Those in the rat race of working life have the chance to slow down for a week or two but even for those who have long vacated that frenzied groove, in a world which is hell-bent on doing, the Christmas season offers a pleasant opportunity for being.

Dr Declan Lyons is a consultant psychiatrist at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, James’s Street, Dublin 8.

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