The 55-plus community my mother lives in has a weekly get-together at its clubhouse. Everyone who chooses to come brings a food item to share; visiting with one another includes the goings-on in their lives: who welcomed grandchildren, who’s expecting visitors and talk of current events.
Showing up at last week’s gathering were only nine people, when most of the time 20 to 30 attend. My mother said it was the lowest turnout ever.
We were both coming up with reasons for the poor showing.
Maybe people were with their families for an extended holiday. Maybe the very cold weather and high winds that day (she lives in New Hampshire) weren’t conducive to going out. Maybe some folks were sick with a cold or the fl u.
And, just maybe, the days leading up to the holidays and those soon after remind some seniors of the losses they’ve experienced, and those memories make them melancholy and not eager to spend time with others. According to AARP, more than one in three elderly Americans describe themselves as lonely, and the holidays can be especially isolating for them.
While the holidays may lead to sadness and loneliness in seniors, these feelings aren’t limited to December. In fact, suicide rates often peak in the days after due to an opposite phenomenon: post-holiday letdown.
I remember as a child making the rounds over the holidays to see some elderly family members. My parents would parade their three little girls in to see Aunt Jenny and Uncle Dewey in their tiny little house in Plymouth, Mass. The visit included tea and goodies and conversation between my mother and father and my relatives.
I always thought it odd that we would leave and never see Aunt Jenny and Uncle Dewey again until the next Christmas. And as we became teens and wanted to spend the holidays with our friends and then went off to college, the visits to Aunt Jenny and Uncle Dewey’s’ ceased altogether.
At some point while I was in college Uncle Dewey died, and Aunt Jenny continued to stay in that house all alone. Due to geography and other circumstances, the time Aunt Jenny needed us most was the time we were not there to visit.
In New England, the snow, ice and dark cloudy days made her social isolation that much worse.
We are fortunate in the Conejo to have nice sunny weather most of the time. But the social isolation and loneliness that occur at this time of the year for many of our seniors is no different.
So, as we roll into the new year, what can we do to help them?
Sometimes the pressure to eat, drink and be merry with friends and family can be too much. Consider some one-on-one time watching a movie, sharing a cup of tea or playing a board game with a senior.
Maybe bring a family recipe or traditional goodie to share with a senior relative or neighbor.
Offer to work on a project with them. It might be cleaning out a closet or repairing that broken window screen. Doing the project together will engage them, and afterward the senior will feel they accomplished something meaningful.
Spending time with an elder is the best thing you can do to make them feel special and loved.
Rather than writing off an aging loved one’s feelings of loneliness as irrational or “wrong,” be supportive and empathetic. Taking time to listen may be the best gift you can give in the new year to help a senior.