Caring for the Lonely During the Holiday Season
For many people, the holidays are a time of extreme loneliness. This may be especially true for the elderly, the chronically ill, those who are widowed or single, those whose loved ones are far away or even those who don’t feel as connected as they would like to be to family or friends who are nearby. From an article on LeftFootForward.org, we learn that “…loneliness and isolation are public health issues with an impact and cost on a par with smoking.”
One cause of loneliness during the holidays can simply be the high expectations we or our loved ones have that this should be one of the happiest times of the year. We set ourselves up for depression and sadness, or we might even contribute to the sadness of others by showing impatience with their inability to enjoy this season, in spite of all we feel we are doing to help them feel otherwise.
I have a good friend who is single and in her late 50s. For her, the holidays are a time of mourning for the husband and children she’s longed for but never had. In the more than 15 years that I’ve known her, I’ve learned that, in spite of the fun things we do together each year, I have to accept that she needs alone time to mourn what author Judith Viorst calls her “necessary losses.” My friend lives with her aging parents and does what she can to make the holidays a happy time for them. But as they age, she fears losing them, as well, and is saddened by what they can no longer do for themselves or others each year. She has a sister and nieces and nephews who live nearby, but more often than not, she avoids being with them, as seeing what they have and she does not heightens her emotional pain. She is probably typical of many people at this time of year.
You might immediately think of things that this friend of mine could do to help herself enjoy the holiday season more than she does. Or, like me, you might have discovered that you can only do so much for the lonely people in your life. Sometimes nothing you can do will completely take away their pain, but it’s important to not stop trying to share what happiness you can and to spend as much time with them as you can.
In addition to my lonely friend, I have a 94-year-old father who needs my help in order to keep from sinking into depression. During the holidays, he too counts his “necessary losses,” and the things that he can no longer do for himself or others. This is a busy time for all of us. Like me, you probably have other family members who depend on you. However, our time is the most valuable gift we can give to our elders and other lonely people, during this holiday season and all throughout the year. We should do what we can without stressing ourselves beyond our limits. We don’t want to convey to our patients or loved ones, even with body language or tone of voice, that they are a burden to us. We need to be kind to ourselves and realize that we won’t please everyone all of the time. Our best efforts will have to be good enough.
In an “Aging Care” article, I found some tips that might help us to make the holidays a less lonely and a happier time for our elderly patients or loved ones. I’m just listing the ones that have special meaning to me, so you might want to look up the whole article.
- Listen when they want to talk, even if the talk is negative. Don’t imply they are whining or that they should snap out of it. They can’t. Your empathy is vital here. Try to put yourself in their place.
- Remind them how important they are as a part of your own celebration and that of the entire family. They may feel useless and burdensome. Remind them they are loved.
- Holiday cards often bring bad news and diminish in quantity. You can help your loved one send out cards or a holiday letter. They need this connection with friends who are still living.
- Remind them that they taught you that it’s people who count, and thank them for that.
- If possible, take your parent out to school programs, especially if they feature grandchildren.
- Help to decorate their home or room in stages, presenting cherished ornaments for Christmas or a menorah for Chanukah at intervals so there is something to look forward to.
- Bring traditional baked goods or treats regularly for your elders and their friends to share.
- Call your elders’ friends or extended family, and see if they can come to a “party.”
- Look at holiday photos or videos with them and leave photos out in a handy place so they can look at them when they are alone.
- Play holiday music for them.
Maybe you are the one who is lonely and/or depressed this year. I’ve abbreviated some tips you can try that I found in an article on About.com. Click to read the whole article.
- Understand that you’re not alone.
- Rethink your expectations.
- Get connected by reaching out to others.
- Cultivate gratitude.
- Donate your time to a cause you believe in.
- Examine what’s behind your feelings of loneliness, either on your own or with the help of a therapist.
In a poll on this site, over half of respondents said they “usually” feel loneliness over the holidays, and only a small percentage said they “never” do. If we recognize the problem, with a little thought and some time, we can probably help to lessen holiday loneliness in the loved ones and patients we care for and even in ourselves.
By Marti Lythgoe, Freelance Writer & Editor