By Christa A. Banister

While there’s plenty to love about the holiday season — gingerbread lattes, ugly sweater parties, repeat viewings of Elf and, of course, all the feasting with family and friends — what’s often been called “the most wonderful time of the year” can often be the loneliest time for so many senior citizens.

Group of seniorsIt’s been estimated that roughly 28 percent of adults 65 and older live alone, so it’s not surprising that when all the television commercials and Christmas songs and sappy Hallmark movies are filled with dreamy imagery of spending the season with the ones you love, feeling more alone than ever is still a common reality.1

And these aren’t just the “winter blahs,” mind you. Loneliness isn’t merely a few down days that will magically disappear when the calendar flips from December to January. Research has conclusively shown that isolation and feelings of despair has serious health implications that can actually shorten one’s life expectancy.

Recent findings have indicated that too much alone time can affect a senior’s body the way smoking 15 cigarettes a day would. Surprisingly, it’s considered even more dangerous than other unhealthy conditions including obesity or forgoing regular exercise.2

There’s also a strong link between loneliness and a greater risk for cognitive decline, depression, anxiety and even suicide.3

Now before you stop reading because this article feels like such a downer, know this, loneliness doesn’t have to hamper anyone’s holiday season. Like anything else worth prioritizing, it’s important not to forget the seniors in your life. Something as simple as a regular phone call can be a real game-changer.

Finding Strength in Numbers

Whether it’s a church, a local senior center or niche gatherings like book clubs, cooking classes, competitive Scrabble matches or groups who love everything from movies to knitting, there are plenty of places where like-minded people regularly meet and connect over shared interests. If the idea of joining a group of complete strangers seems intimidating — and no one would blame you for that — this may be an opportunity for a friend or loved one who lives nearby to step in and accompany you.

Lending a Helping Hand

It was the late actress Audrey Hepburn who said, “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands — one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” And during the Christmas season, there are more opportunities, and fun ones at that, to volunteer than usual.

Helping others offers a natural high, so it’s definitely worthwhile to reach out to local schools, non-profits or religious organizations to see where your innate interests and gifts may be used in the best possible way. Many churches and nonprofits may even have someone who can offer a ride, so seniors can avoid driving if that’s something that prevents them from participating in volunteerism.

Communication Is Key

Whether you’re 26 or 86, feeling glum during the holidays is completely normal. But what’s not helpful is bottling up these feelings. It’s important to have someone you can talk to, whether it’s family, friends, a health care provider, counselor or trusted church leader.

While your family may live far away, one of the great, pleasant things about technology is how it can bring you and your loved ones so much closer together through video chat. Having a regular call to catch up can help combat loneliness and give you something to look forward to. And if you’re fortunate enough to have family who lives nearby, getting together — even if it’s just to shop, watch a holiday movie or decorate the house — is an instant mood-lifter.

Spotting the Signs of Depression

Depression can rear its ugly head in a variety of ways, and discerning the signs can be incredibly helpful in determining whether a senior you care about needs immediate attention.

One of the major keys is noticing changes from their usual behavior. Maybe they’re crying more often, suddenly not very hungry or no longer interested in something they used to be incredibly passionate about. Maybe he is sleeping way more than his usual eight hours per night or she is tired from dawn to dusk when she’s normally brimming with energy. Perhaps, there’s negative talk about feeling helpless, or worse yet, worthless and  they make comments or have thoughts about “wanting it all to end.”

These clues that must be taken seriously, and it’s important to remind your loved one that treatment is not only available, but can help manage what is actually a common medical condition.


Sources:

1 Fritze, Danielle. “Mental Health This Holiday and Beyond: 4 Steps to Combat Loneliness in Seniors.” NCOA Blog, December 15, 2016.

2 McDaniels, Andrea K. “Helping the Lonely and Elderly During the Holidays.” The Baltimore Sun, December 22, 2016.

3 Preidt, Robert. “Helping Seniors Beat the Holiday Blues.” ABC News, December 15, 2016.