Aging Well: Finding peace in family gatherings, strained relationships

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Humor, acceptance and forgiveness can go a long way toward making holiday gatherings enjoyable and mending sour relationships in the process.

Making your family gatherings enjoyable

If you’re planning a dinner or gathering, keep details simple. Consider how you can make it work with the least amount of stress on yourself and others.

Go to gatherings relaxed and comfortable with yourself. Enjoy quiet time alone before leaving the house.

Visualize the event. Laugh about strange or annoying things that might be said or done. Expect the unexpected and plan to be flexible and easygoing.

Lower your expectations, and you’ll be less upset when the day is over. People don’t have to change for you to be happy.

Instead of just tolerating noise, activities and relatives, be open to the whole experience without judging, withdrawing or saying something you’ll regret.

Make a point to be a better listener. Hear a person’s words, notice their emotion, keep eye contact and put yourself in their shoes.

Keep your sense of humor. Among our differences and imperfections, it’s a miracle we all get along as well as we do.

Source: Diane McCrann, licensed professional counselor

This article originally was published Dec. 21, 2009. It has been updated for accuracy.

Thanksgiving is approaching, and families soon will be gathering in warm settings — content, at peace and immersed in the joy of the occasion. Maybe.

Unfortunately, this is not reality for most families. Whether it’s squabbles or sarcasm, feigned happiness or empty seats at the dinner table, Thanksgiving and the holidays often highlight tension and conflicts.

By lowering expectations — letting go of hopes for perfection and harmony — and being more open to others and situations, family members can make gatherings enjoyable, rather than just tolerable.

Where deep and painful fissures exist, this season also may offer opportunities to begin mending relationships.

“The question to ask yourself is ‘Do I want peace?’” said Diane McCrann, a psychotherapist and counselor in Steamboat Springs. “If it’s peace you want … you must reach out, you must forgive.”

Making the first step

Overcoming blame and resentment takes a lot of courage, but that effort will pay off, if not in the relationship, for the person initiating the process.

As hard as it seems, taking the first step toward reconciliation can take less energy than hanging on to anger, sadness and regret, which take a toll on a person’s health.

“If you want change then why wait for the phone to ring or the holiday card to arrive? … It may never happen,” McCrann said.

Reaching out does not have to be overwhelming. If a face-to-face connection or phone call is threatening, a person can write an e-mail or send a card.

McCrann suggests keeping communication simple with statements such as, “I’m sorry we’ve grown apart” or “I miss you.” The biggest mistake a person can make is to rehash the past.

“Even if you believe the other person is at fault, it’s important you step beyond that and say, ‘What can I do … what can we do to get past this?’” she said.

Forgiving takes practice and time and can make a person feel vulnerable if the other person doesn’t reciprocate.

Even if this is the case, the people reaching out will have peace in their hearts knowing they did their best and can move on to more rewarding relationships.

“The challenge is that we can’t make a relationship exactly as we want it,” McCrann said. “We can have hope and wishes and we can reach out and share our love, but we can’t control what the other person does.”

Coping with estrangement

Estrangement within a family can be particularly painful for older people who have devoted a lifetime to nurturing family relationships.

Pained by conflicts between their children, older adults still have the power to smooth rifts by paying attention to how they communicate with their grown children and how they deal with issues involving money, gifts and other sensitive matters that may contribute to rivalries, McCrann said.

Siblings at odds with one another should consider how that tension affects their ability to care for and make decisions regarding their aging parent.

“If siblings are not on the same page … their ability to communicate about the needs and concerns of their aging parent is estranged and very ineffective.

“Everybody loses in that circumstance.”

An older parent estranged from a child may find it difficult to reach out, especially if the parent thinks it is the child who should make the first step.

The older person will need to let go of that feeling — especially if the situation is causing them a lot of stress — to begin the communication process.

Resolving conflict can take time, and some bonds may remain broken despite a person’s best efforts.

Rather than getting lost in disappointment, people can create a sense of family and nurture the relationships they long for among friends and people already in their lives, McCrann emphasized.

“Who is there that can share a meal, take a walk or share a cup of coffee with us?” she said. “Love is all around us, and the potential for relationships is wherever we are, regardless of our age or circumstance.”

Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tmanzanares@nwcovna.org. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit www.agingwelltoday.com or call 970-871-7676.

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