Commentary: Chinese New Year brings stress, loneliness and sorrow to some seniors
Festive seasons are usually a time of cheer but let’s keep a look out for elderly relatives and neighbours who might be experiencing negative feelings, says the Institute of Mental Health’s Dr Tina Tan.
SINGAPORE: Chinese New Year is fast approaching.
In Singapore, with the passing of the New Year, like clockwork, supermarkets and stores swop out their Christmas decorations for Chinese New Year ones, play festive Chinese New Year music, and begin selling paraphernalia proclaiming the coming year of the Dog.
Neighbourhood senior centres and nursing homes also make it a point to bring festive cheer to their older residents.
To many elderly folks, Chinese New Year is meant to be a time of family gatherings, feasting and celebration – and they fully intend to have it that way even if it comes at some personal expense.
I have seen elderly patients in need of medical attention insist on having reunion dinner with their family members before they allow themselves to be brought to a hospital.
But what of elderly persons who find themselves experiencing the opposite - festive blues or even depression?
Data from a 2011 study in North America suggest an increase in mood-related issues during the western equivalent of Chinese New Year - Christmas. In particular, more use psychiatric services, and there are more incidents of self-harm and suicides right after Christmas.
While local data implies there is no seasonal pattern of suicide associated with Chinese New Year, it does not mean that an elderly person would not experience festive blues, depression, or even suicidal thoughts around this auspicious occasion, as pantang as that may seem.
In fact, superstitions and stigma around such negative thoughts may even discourage our elderly from acknowledging or talking about these feelings.
Holidays can be a time of added stress.
In order to uphold the many celebratory traditions, many elderly folks take on the responsibility of decorating the house, preparing food and performing religious rituals. Not to mention dealing with long queues at the bank to get new notes, deciding who to give red packets to, and how much.
These chores are not trivial and the sheer amount of logistical planning needed is enough to stress anyone.
Yet the auspiciousness of the season calls for one to feel joyful, creating a cognitive dissonance. Some might portray a happy front on the surface, yet feel isolated and alone deep down inside.
What makes this worse is Chinese New Year, like any important season, is a time of self-reflection and reminiscence. It may remind a senior of what they have, what they don’t have, and perhaps who they have lost.
The absence of family members – because of estrangement or death – may cause Chinese New Year to be a particularly painful and lonely season, rather than a time of celebration.
Feelings of profound loneliness, sorrow and regret once bottled up could rise to the fore, leading to depression and suicidal thoughts.
In fact, a study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health on Singapore’s elderly population found that loneliness was positively associated with depression, whereas those who reported a supportive social network had lower odds of depression.
So it might be incumbent on us not just to use this period to greet our elderly neighbours and relatives with warm wishes, but also to keep a look out to see if they’re feeling down this Chinese New Year.
NORMAL TO FEEL DOWN DURING A FESTIVE SEASON
Being able to identify these signs must first stem from a recognition that feeling stressed, lonely, and down can be a normal experience during a festive season.
Family and friends who recognise that their loved one may not be feeling the festive cheer as much should reach out as a source of support.
This can be done in tangible ways. An offer to assist in putting up the decorations or cooking, or accompanying them on their errands would go a long way in reducing their pre-season stress.
Taking the opportunity to visit elderly relatives is also helpful, especially for those who live alone.
Neighbours and the larger community can also help in identifying seniors who may need help in getting through this period.
Often, a simple chat, phone call or house visit will go a long way, especially in helping seniors understand that what they feel is normal, open up and share any feelings of loneliness, stress or unhappiness they may be experiencing.
Some elderly folks may be more likely to experience depression and even suicidal thoughts during this season. Research shows that those at greatest risk are likely to be male, living by themselves, and experiencing a painful illness or physical disability.
Recognising the physical symptoms of depression might help us go one step further in equipping ourselves with the ability to identify visible markers.
These symptoms include poor moods, constant sadness or tearfulness, social withdrawal, irritability, difficulty in sleeping or a change in personality.
While we all relish the break that this festive season brings to our busy working lives, let’s all take time to recognise and reach out to the seniors around us who might be feeling down this Chinese New Year.
Sometimes all it takes are simple gestures of kindness.
Dr Tina Tan is an associate consultant at the Institute for Mental Health’s department of geriatric psychiatry.
If you or someone you love is experiencing these symptoms, there are community resources available where you can seek help, such as your nearby Family Service Centre. Alternatively, you can call the Mental Health Helpline at 6389-2222 or the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) crisis line at 1800 221-4444.