The holidays are supposed to be a happy time — warm and cozy, with dashes of gratitude and thoughtfulness — but for some senior citizens, it’s anything but.
When people feel an increased sense of loneliness and isolation during the holiday season, it’s called the “Christmas effect” — because they can be reminded of loved ones they’re not with due to distance, sickness or death. And it can especially hit older people.
“They may or may not have children, their children may be in other parts of the country,” said Sachin Jain, president of health care company CareMore. “For many people, the holidays bring back lots of memories, often of loved ones who have passed away.” A study called “The Christmas Effect on Psychopathology” published in 2011 in the Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience found that of the 55 patients being evaluated in a psychiatric emergency service during the Christmas season, the biggest stressors were loneliness (40%) and being without a family (38%). They linked feeling depressed with the holidays.
At least at one point in the last five years, three in 10 adults felt lonely during the holidays, according to a recent AARP Foundation survey of adults over 18. Another 41% said they were concerned about another loved one feeling lonely during the season.
Loneliness is exacerbated by the holidays, but seniors specifically have it hard in general when it comes to the feeling. Nearly 20% of seniors live alone, and of those 43% feel lonely on a regular basis, according to a University of California, San Francisco study. < sentence ok? Lonely seniors also tend to push people away and further isolate themselves, a University of Chicago study found. Loneliness can also be dangerous — people who suffer from it are less likely to manage daily stresses well, or maintain their health and sleep schedule. They’re also more likely to take more medication and to fall more often, which could affect long-term health. Lonely seniors are also more likely to die faster than people who have some sort of social connection, according to the same University of California, San Francisco study — people 60 and older who said they felt lonely had a 45% higher risk of death.
There are ways to help prevent these outcomes, though. Here are four suggestions to make someone else’s holidays just a little bit brighter:
Consider volunteering your time at a local senior center to engage with the elderly residents. Create social events, such as dances and games, or coordinate exercise and educational programs to keep them active, suggests SeniorCare.com.
No time to go to a senior center? Elderly neighbors could use help too — offer to do chores, such as shoveling snow or changing a lightbulb; you could also drive them to the supermarket or doctor’s office and give their caregivers a break.
Don’t forget to call your mother
More than an adage, communication is actually incredibly important for lonely people and could make someone’s day. Talking on the phone or having a video chat on Skype or FaceTime (if they know how to use the technology) can help people get through the holiday season if they’re far away. Also, make a New Year’s resolution to call your loved ones every week for even 15 to 30 minutes, the National Council on Aging suggests, and share what’s going on in your life, ask what’s going on in theirs and look to them for advice or talk about memories. You could help them be less lonely, and even learn something new.
While you’re talking, remind them how important they are to you and your family — and let them know whatever they are able to do (if not visit you) is enough, according to AgingCare.com.
Find them a pet
If the senior citizen you know is lonely and capable of taking care of a pet, the two may be a perfect match — cats and dogs make great companions, but it’s also a way for the elderly to stay in touch with their nurturing side, according to senior care blog A Place for Mom. Pets reduce depression and a sense of loneliness, according to AgingCare.com. Owning a pet is a serious commitment though, so before you give one as a gift (or make the suggestion), answer questions about debilitating disabilities, if the pet can be well-mannered and if there are enough finances to support emergency situations. If owning a pet is out of the question, consider finding a therapy dog that can come visit for a few hours every so often.
Though almost everyone looks forward to retirement — when the daily grind finally comes to an end and there’s a sense of relaxation in their future — for some people, it can be boring. Boredom can lead to depression and a declining cognitive state. To avoid that, as well as a lost sense of purpose, encourage your older loved ones, friends or neighbors to stay active or find a new hobby, according to DailyCaring.com. If they’re physically capable, go for walks with them or suggest they sign up for classes in yoga, gardening or something related to their former career. Not only does physical activity help keep them healthier for longer, but they’re bound to find new friends in similar situations