Dec 26 2023

Senior living offers rich opportunities over the holidays

Christmas tree next to a glowing fire in a fireplace in a senior living facility.

The traditions of the holiday season bind together a whole host of visual images and emotions. The flickering flames of candles in a menorah piercing a dark room. Blue, red, yellow and green lights glowing through the needles of a Christmas tree. Fluffy white snow. Loudly chanted countdowns at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The melody of carols. The savory smell of turkey and gravy on Thanksgiving. And most of all, memories of time spent with other people. 

A senior living community can bring together a rich blend of these kinds of traditions. It’s not only that older adults carry recollections of evolving celebrations over the decades. Retirement communities also draw people from a wide array of backgrounds and faiths, team members and residents alike. 

Tapping into this resource with thoughtful seasonal celebrations can give seniors, team members and others a way to get to know each other better, enjoy special times together, and draw strength and meaning from traditions. 

Benefits of traditions

“There are plenty of reasons to value family rituals,” says anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, in an article for Psychology Today. “Research shows that they can provide various psychological benefits, helping us enjoy ourselves, connect with loved ones, and take a respite from the daily grind.” 

In his research, Xygalatas notes that rituals are an important part of shaping our social worlds and strengthening connections. 

Many older adults also experience loss and grief in this season of the year, so building new social bonds and sharing in meaningful rituals together can be even more important and rewarding in a senior living community. 

Chorus of singers reading sheet music at a concert during the holidays at a senior living facility.

A season of extravagance

Residents and team members at White Horse Village in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, bring experiences from not only various faiths but various countries, and the end of the year is a special time filled with recognition of the season.  

Volunteers and team members come together at the beginning of December to arrange Christmas and Hanukkah decorations around the Clubhouse. They hang stockings over the fireplaces and wreaths on the walls, put up menorah displays, and slip in a Christmas tree just about wherever they can find a spot. And that’s just the beginning—a resident choir puts on a holiday concert; residents organize an annual food drive, and each neighborhood throws a holiday party. There are shopping trips, a recognition of Kwanzaa, a visit to Longwood Gardens to see the holiday display, carols and hot cocoa, a vespers service on Christmas Eve, and special dinners. 

Different experiences, similar values

Rituals like these can preserve stories and knowledge from generation to generation. 

White Horse Village resident Sam Goldstein has experienced this. He grew up in a religious Jewish family, and says he is still very Jewish in his understanding of the world. He’s had the opportunity to share the background of Hanukkah with residents who may not be familiar with the account of how the Jewish people victoriously rose up against oppressors in the 160s BCE. He recounts the traditional story of how during this time, ritual oil for religious observance in the Jewish Temple miraculously lasted eight days until they could get another supply. (This is the reason behind the nine candles on the menorah – one for each day, and another to light all the other candles.) 

Handmade wooden menorah with dreidel lit by glowing light.

Goldstein values these seasons of connection and observance. “It’s nice to celebrate,” he says. 

It’s a time for giving gifts, and Goldstein got a double dose. “My best friend was a Catholic kid, whose mother had Christmas gifts for me under their Christmas tree,” he remembers. His mother had Hanukkah gifts, too. 

His family members now observe multiple faith traditions, and they celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas alike. It’s a time for them all to gather together, and the group can be quite large. “We celebrate all joyous holidays,” Goldstein says. 

For resident Nancy Hopko, music is an important part of the season. She’s part of the Village Singers choir, and likes to take in a performance of Handel’s Messiah each year as well. 

“There’s some opportunities to go out and hear special music,” she says. “The Chester Children’s Chorus is dear to our hearts.” 

Nancy also likes to drive around and have a look at the Christmas light displays in yards at White Horse Village and beyond, and must-see movies include A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life.  

Like Sam Goldstein’s family, food is also an important part of her celebration. Nancy comes from a pro-fruitcake family, she says — she used to bake as many as 20 fruitcakes and send them all over the country to friends and relatives. And that was cutting back. “My mother used to make 40 of them for friends.” 

She’s also taken part in the New Year’s luminaria display, when volunteers create paper bags lit by electric candles and distribute them along the roads on campus for a glowing border. 

Luminaria lights line a driveway.
Photo by resident Duane Thurman

New Year’s was the most important part of the season for team member Saimir “Sam” Celcima when he was young. Sam works in housekeeping and grew up in Albania. Under Communist rule there, Christmas was frowned on because of its religious nature, but people still celebrated at this time of year. They got together on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, sharing time as family, food, and small gifts. 

Today, Sam says, Christmas is back in Albania, where it’s a celebration much like the American version. People of different faiths celebrate holy times together, with Muslims going to church and Christians returning the gesture with visits to the mosque during Ramadan, he says. 

Traditions like these and many more can be a way to celebrate shared values.

“I think it’s about sharing the traditions to strengthen the community,” Nancy says. “And as the community gets strengthened, you have greater desire to share your traditions.”