December 26, 2010 in Idaho

Caregivers help ease elderly holiday blues

Laurie Welch The Times-News
Associated Press photo

Michael Thompson, activities assistant at Countryside Care & Rehabilitation in Rupert, Idaho, helps Ramona Garner build a snowman out of real snow on Dec. 6.
(Full-size photo)

BURLEY, Idaho – Holidays can represent a time of warmth that comes from reconnecting with family and friends.

But for Idaho seniors isolated from their loved ones by death or distance, the season can become one of loneliness and depression.

Eighty-year-old George Heald, who lives at Countryside Care & Rehabilitation in Rupert, said that although he doesn’t have family in the area who can visit him during the holidays, he takes the season in stride.

“It’s what you make of it,” Heald said. “You can make it a tough place or you can make it a good place and I choose to make it a good place. I’ve noticed that some people here get a little down in the dumps during Christmas, but life’s too short to get that way. I don’t let anything get the best of me.”

Heald said he enjoys the friendships he has cultivated at the care center, adding that sometimes it’s nicer to spend time with friends who are chosen rather than family. He especially enjoys the visiting therapy dogs that are brought to his room.

But not everyone takes to the season of holiday change as well as Heald. College of Southern Idaho Office on Aging spokeswoman Shawna Wasko said that when people get older they don’t always tolerate the holiday festivities as well.

“Sometimes they’re just tired and it’s just too much excitement,” Wasko said.

Regardless of their methods or location, the caretakers of Idaho’s elderly and infirm are tasked daily with ensuring residents’ well-being, including care for emotions strained by the holiday’s stresses and memories of family either lost or too far away to connect with.

At the Mini-Cassia Care Center in Burley, 2  1/2 pounds of black and white Shih Tzu fluff bobs up and down along a wooden gate in Administrator Joshua Thompson’s office.

Several residents pause at the doorway to greet Thompson and the puppy named Maximus.

At just a few weeks old, the pup is already in training to become a therapy dog, just one of the programs in place to cheer center residents.

Thompson oversees the 68-bed nursing home that provides care for residents with behavioral issues. Not all of the residents are seniors, but all live away from their families.

“It’s a tough time of the year and the residents deal with loneliness,” Thompson said. “Many of our residents are detached from a significant other. If they are married, one may be here and one still at home.”

Thompson said the best way to ease residents’ pain is to keep them really busy.

“We want to keep them occupied and having fun because depression worsens negative behavior,” Thompson said.

Loralei Anderson, a 78-year-old resident at the Countryside facility in Rupert, is the mother of seven children, many who live close enough to visit regularly and attend the center’s holiday dinners.

Although Anderson doesn’t always participate in the nursing home’s scheduled activities, she likes to watch the children who are brought in to perform.

“The children are important. I always go to see the babies when they bring them in to dance,” she said. “They are so cute and adorable. The kids are Christmas.”

Anderson said the camaraderie she feels with her roommate and the nurses also helps during times her family members can’t visit.

Minidoka County Senior Center Director Penny Schell said the holidays can be equally challenging for elderly residents who remain in their homes.

“It seems to be especially hard for them. Sometimes they have so little and are all alone,” Schell said. “It can be a very lonely time for them.”

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