Tips for Connecting with Elders during the Holidays

“Memories of the Christmas presents I got as a child have long faded,” said Rhoda Meador, director of the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute. “But I can still visualize my grandmother at the stove, frying bacon and eggs in her cast iron skillet, while we had heart-to-heart talks before my parents woke up.”

Those childhood experiences of intergenerational connections have been reflected in Meador’s research. The co-author of several books, including “The Family Member’s Survival Guide: What Every Relative of a Nursing Home Resident Needs to Know,” Meador holds a doctorate in consumer and family sciences education from Iowa State University.

“Most of us yearn to connect with loved ones from older generations,” she said. “But unfortunately, the chaos and stress of the season take over, and when the holidays are over, we’re left with empty bank accounts, high-calorie hangovers, and fatigue.”

Meador offers six tips that to help connect the generations during this holiday season.

1. Make togetherness a priority. Intergenerational connections won’t “just happen” on their own, so set aside specific times to be with friends and family members. Scheduling will help make connecting with loved ones a priority.

2. Be sensitive to the special needs of older family members. Older people may have visual or hearing impairments, mobility challenges, chronic health conditions and memory loss that might limit participation in some activities. To help integrate these family members into activities:

  • Tone down or eliminate background music to make it easier for people with hearing aids to understand conversations.
  • Arrange furniture so the space is accessible for loved ones using a cane or walker.
  • Help children understand the health challenges facing older family members by preparing children ahead of time. For example, “Grandpa will be really excited to hear about your baseball team, but he can’t hear unless you sit close to him.”

3. Use positive communication skills. Challenge yourself to find out at least one new thing about each of your loved ones that you don’t already know. Try asking open-ended sentences like, “Tell me about what activities you’re most enjoying lately.” (It’s probably a good idea to steer the conversation away from controversial topics like politics and money and toward the hobbies and interests).

4. Plan “generationally neutral” activities. Board games, card games and food preparation bring people of all ages together and provide a setting where everyone can participate on equal footing.

5. Use photos, family heirlooms, music, and food to stimulate intergenerational storytelling. Seeing a younger version of Grandma in vintage clothing can stimulate questions like “Where was this photo taken?” and “Who is that good looking guy driving the ’47 Ford?” Music and TV shows can also bring back memories, like “Remember the first time we saw Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer on TV?” Treasured recipes can stimulate conversations about family traditions as well as your taste buds. “This is Grandma’s fudge recipe; remember how she made it every Christmas?”

6. Connect through technology. A daughter or son who is unable to be home for the holidays can be included in a holiday meal by setting a place at the table and joining by SKYPE on a laptop. (Elders are more tech savvy than people may think. A recent study of adults over 65 found that 60 percent go online regularly and 50 percent have Facebook pages.)

“The best gifts you can give yourself and your loved ones are memories you can cherish long after the holiday trappings are gone,” Meador said. “Consider what kinds of memories you want to create this season.”

For more information, contact Keith Davis, assistant director of media relations, at or (607) 274-1153.

Tagged as Aging, Gerontology
Rhoda Meador