CLEARWATER — On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, near a plate of Christmas cookies, Hal Azarva, 84, stood to talk about his grief.
His wife of 61 years, Gert, had died on Thanksgiving after an agonizing struggle with Alzheimer's disease. Today, he said, would have been her 79th birthday.
"She was so smart, so bright. Once the Alzheimer's gets a hold of you . . ." he said later, with a pause. "It's just the worst disease I know."
Now comes his next hardship: Christmas. For the first time in decades, he'll have to face the holidays, and all their traditions and memories, alone.
Azarva shared during "Tea and Topics," a seminar series hosted at Clearwater's Aging Well Center, which opened last summer. Seminars have touched on card skimming, unlicensed contractors and other issues on which elders have routinely asked for help.
This week, organizers held a class on a less-acknowledged anxiety, the "holiday blues." They said a counselor would speak on "valuing the holiday experience, even if circumstances don't lend themselves to the holiday spirit."
This season's potential for sadness is well-known and oft-repeated. One recurring myth — that suicide rates rise during the holidays — adds to the doom and gloom.
The oldest among us, some of whom have retired far from family or are dealing with the deaths of friends, may be especially vulnerable. And for the dozen who attended Wednesday's session, Suncoast Center mental health counselor Michael Whalen had some advice: "This, too, shall pass."
One problem, said those in attendance: the "impossible picture" of happy holidays. Reiterated endlessly through sappy commercials and shopping mall grandeur is the social demand to have "the perfect dinner, the perfect gift."
Managing expectations, Whalen said, is key to staying sane during the holiday revelry. He showed a small Charlie-Brown-style Christmas tree, decorated with a tiny red bulb, that he said was a reminder to "have a 'good enough' holiday."
Avoiding the "morass of sentimentality," spawned by reminders of the past, was a way to shake off the blues. Detaching from the holiday buildup and paying attention to "what has heart and meaning," he added, also helps.
"Santa Claus has been a marketing tool," he said. "It's up to us how we want to participate."
Whalen coached these elders to treasure and honor memories, reach out for social contact and "expect, accept and tolerate feelings that may be uncomfortable."
But he stopped short of demanding joy and merriment from those who didn't feel it. "This holiday may not be a 'happy' occasion, but it can be sacred, meaningful — even joyous," Whalen wrote in a take-home suggestion list. "You can be alive, though in pain."
After an hour, the session ended, and Whalen wished his audience "a holiday season in which you're aware of the possibility of beauty everywhere around you."
Azarva, the only man in the audience, left on a note of acceptance.
"These are things that happen," Azarva said. "There is a beginning and an end."
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.