Holidays can heighten loneliness.
The household baker who loaded platters with red-and-green frosted cookies. The grandfather who proudly carved the massive turkey. The mom who was a wrapping-paper whiz. The neighbor whose outdoor decorations outshone the entire block. The dad who carefully lit the menorah. The parents who planned amazing family trips for winter breaks. The jovial host who filled guests’ glasses with eggnog or champagne. As they grow older, the people in your life who once made holidays special could use some cheer and attention themselves. Here’s how you can help them celebrate and feel connected.
Include your neighbors.
Holidays aren’t necessarily happy for everyone, says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, AARP Foundation president. “Messages we’re receiving in our communities are about cheer and joy and nostalgia,” she says. “For older adults, it can be a time when they feel more acutely the loss of a loved one, or the loss of friends and family.” Be alert to the possibility of isolation and reach out. “It’s a great time of year — as we’re gathering with others for celebrations and meals — to just put an extra seat at the table and include an isolated or lonely adult in the celebration,” she suggests. “If you’re headed out to a holiday event and have room in your car, invite your neighbor.”
Give the gift of connection.
Social isolation puts people at higher risk for physical and mental health problems, particularly vulnerable seniors who are frail or disabled, with limited transportation access. “There’s a greater risk for older adults who are low-income, who are unpaid caregivers, who are members of the LGBTQ+ communities or those who are part of already marginalized populations,” Marsh Ryerson says. While it’s important to be mindful 365 days a year, she says, holidays offer added opportunities to stay connected. “Stopping by to help put up decorations, no matter what (people’s) traditions are, is really powerful,” she says. If you notice someone has no decorations, you could supply these as a practical gift of cheer. Simply sharing a pot of hot chocolate and a chat with a neighbor could make the holiday warmer. (For year-round tips on addressing social isolation, check out AARP Foundation’s connect2affect website.)
Observe religious traditions.
Faithful synagogue, mosque or church attendees can feel a deep sense of loss when disability or distance make holiday services too hard to access. Many groups reach out to bring religious holidays to seniors. In West Palm Beach, Florida, for example, MorseLife Health System senior residences hold yearly Hanukkah celebrations. Cantors officiate, musicians play holiday songs and residents enjoy candlelighting and traditional dishes like latkes. Frail seniors require an extra level of assistance, says Alan Sadowsky, senior vice president of community-based services with MorseLife. Through its Homebound Mitzvah program, volunteers deliver packages to area Jewish seniors including kosher meals, wine, large-print prayer books and a DVD of services conducted by a rabbi for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you’re concerned about distant loved ones or neighbors with barriers to holiday participation, check with local faith-based groups, senior centers and long-term residences to learn what’s available and how you can help.
Get together virtually.
Although it’s not quite the same as being there in person, technology allows distant families to stay in touch during holidays. Seeing happy faces of loved ones via Skype or smartphones makes seniors feel cheerful as well. If you can lend technical assistance to help an older adult trying to connect, that’s a wonderful way to help. Music evokes powerful holiday memories, Sadowsky points out. By providing iPods with music individualized to older adults, such as meaningful holiday melodies or traditional tunes from their past, community philanthropists help seniors experience the holiday season.
Join the parade.
This New Year’s Day may find you viewing the Rose Parade on TV. However, some seniors will enjoy a more hands-on experience and behind-the-scenes action. Road Scholar, a not-for-profit organization that provides educational travel tours geared to older adults, offers many holiday adventures. Among the most popular is the Pasadena, California, parade-centered program. “It’s sort of a bucket list thing: ‘I helped decorate a Rose Parade float,'” says JoAnn Bell, senior vice president of programs with Road Scholar. “Most of our participants have probably been watching it on TV for a gazillion years, but they only see the finished product. And here is a weekend of four or five nights of nonstop preparing for the parade, culminating with going to the parade and seeing the very float that you decorated.” Of course, you and your loved ones can attend local parades and festivities wherever you live, maybe on a more modest scale.
Take a holiday trip.
Many couples celebrate holidays by traveling to new destinations. For a senior who’s recently widowed, traveling alone may seem daunting. “Probably the No. 1 time someone joins our mailing list as a single is after the loss of a spouse,” Bell says. Creating camaraderie and friendship is a priority for Road Scholar tour leaders, who make every effort to keep travelers from feeling isolated. Travelers can make selections based on activity levels from easy to challenging, and choose grandparent-and-grandchildren trips to foster intergenerational travel. Holiday-themed trips include options like Christmas and New Year’s in Oaxaca and Puebla, Mexico. Alternatively, you can be your own travel agent and create a holiday trip that’s appropriate and appealing for you and your companions.
Deliver a holiday meal.
People rely on Meals On Wheels to receive hot, tasty, nutritious meals delivered right to their homes year-round. However, the program is typically unavailable on holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. That’s when organizations like The Senior Alliance, a designated Area Agency on Aging in Wayne County, Michigan, step into the breach. Every year, the organization hosts a fundraiser to support the program so seniors who need these meals during the holidays still receive them. “It also helps with combating social isolation, because it provides them with a warm visit from somebody, where they might otherwise spend the entire day alone, without a meal,” says David Wilson, director of business development and communications with The Senior Alliance. If you live near an older adult who could use a celebratory meal, consider taking over a home-cooked holiday platter. If you’re a caregiver at a distance, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging locator can point you to home-meal delivery resources.
Throw your own party.
Holiday seasons can serve as painful reminders for seniors on their own. “It just brings back a lot of memories of family get-togethers, and growing up with Mom, Dad and siblings, if you have them,” says Carol Marak, founder of the Elder Orphan Facebook group. “That’s just tradition. It’s so focused on family that if a person doesn’t have one, it really brings up loss.” Whatever the reason someone is single — through divorce, estranged children, families moving away or by choice — older “orphans” learn to rely on themselves. For Marak, that included relocating to a high-rise in an urban, walkable area, where she and a like-minded resident have teamed up. “We’re the social club — the social directors,” she says. Together, they plan Christmas events or head to a jazz bar down the street to celebrate the Super Bowl (not exactly a holiday, but close enough). They also put technology to good holiday use: “It’s kind of fun,” she says. “Some members of our group will Skype on the date, like Thanksgiving, and they’ll have Thanksgiving dinner ‘together.'”
How to prevent holiday isolation for seniors.
Recapping ways to keep seniors connected for the holidays:
— Include elders in local celebrations.
— Assist with home decorations.
— Help them observe religious traditions.
— Connect with family via smartphones and Skype.
— Make a holiday music collection.
— Attend a parade together.
— Take a holiday trip.
— Deliver a holiday meal.
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Correction 12/13/18: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Carol Marak, founder of the Elder Orphan Facebook group.