That Christmas song playing incessantly on the radio and in the stores says it over and over again: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Or is it? For every one of us who loves the spirit and fun of the holidays, there’s someone else who finds this season emotionally difficult at best. There are plenty of reasons why, for millions of older Americans, December is a month that brings more disappointment and loneliness than comfort and joy.
Here at the AgingOptions Blog, we recognize that this can be a tough season – if not for you then almost certainly for someone you know. In that spirit we’re bringing you this recent article from NextAvenue in which managing editor Julie Pfitzinger tackles the issue of holiday isolation and depression and gives us some ideas on how to turn December into a season of new social connections and traditions. Take a look at her ideas and see if you don’t agree.
After COVID Trauma, What Will Christmas 2022 be Like?
Pfitzinger begins her article by pointing out a sad truth: the pandemic year of 2020 is not really a distant memory: it still looms in our recent collective memory. For many it was a difficult, even traumatic year that kept families separated and saw the loss of tens of thousands of loved ones in the early days of COVID-19. Even 2021 continued in a similar vein, though perhaps a less outwardly dramatic one.
“So here we are in 2022,” she writes. “What will this holiday season feel like, especially for those still reeling from those losses, or for people who are isolated by circumstance or choice?”
For some answers, Pfitzinger reached out to Dr. Jeremy Nobel, an expert in aging, for his wisdom and expertise surrounding the challenge of holiday loneliness.
Cultural Attention Makes the Holidays Stressful
Nobel told Pfitzinger that he expects that the coming weeks will be a difficult season for many, even more than usual.
“What I think is most stressful about the holidays is that they get a lot of attention in the media and in our culture,” he says. “The typical story is that you’re together with family and friends; there is image after image that is celebratory and fantastic, unless you feel that somehow you’re alienated from that. The images represent some unachievable possibility of connection that you don’t have access to.”
Pfitzinger adds, “According to Nobel, these feelings of alienation can trigger a lack of self-esteem, and a sense of shame or guilt, all which is compounded into disinterest in even trying to be social.” This sets up a vicious cycle of potential isolation and depression.
The Risk for Loneliness Increases
“During a typical holiday season, people who are already at risk for loneliness and isolation are at increased risk — people who are marginalized because of illness, a disability, race, class … the list is long,” Nobel says.
Moreover, the year 2022 has its own particular factors that heighten the difficulties. “We’re coming off two and a half years of a social trauma where we not only had prolonged uncertainty, which in and of itself is very stressful, but a lot of people experienced a sense of loss they are still trying to make sense of,” Nobel explains.
This is especially difficult for those suffering from long COVID, projected to be tens of millions of individuals, who have lost both their sense of wellbeing and their certainty in the future.
The death toll from COVID—about one million people—also has further-reaching consequences than you might think. Nobel says, “There are estimates that for every person who died of COVID, there are eight people grieving that person, which is probably an underestimate. And it was a disordered grieving process — many people, either in their own lives, or in the media, saw how loved ones frequently had to say goodbye via FaceTime, if they could connect at all.”
Pfitzinger adds, “The profound nature of that experience has left many collectively grieving a certain loss of normalcy, of ritual and routine. Add this to the economic climate, with many older adults on fixed incomes, political polarization, an increase in violence and other disruptive activities.” Nobel sums it up: “[I]t’s a very stressful time.”
Look for Simple Ways to Connect
The takeaway? Connection is more vital than it’s ever been between family, friends, and community members, especially reaching out to those who are isolated through simple yet meaningful gestures. Nobel’s mission is to bring “holiday loneliness out of the closet.”
“Let’s talk about it,” he says. “That’s a way to normalize it. We’re all lonely at one point or another. What if we think about loneliness not as a negative calamity in our life, but just as a signal to connect?”
Looking for some ideas? Nobel and Pfitzinger provide a handful.
“Meals are so important,” Nobel says. “While there is a great recognition to bring a meal to an isolated older adult, there is a tendency to drop it off at the door. There’s a different kind of generosity if you’re willing to stay and have conversation while you’re eating the casserole you brought.”
If chatting over a meal sounds a bit intimidating, you could try bonding over film. Pfitzinger writes, “the Foundation for Art & Healing sponsors an UnLonely Film Festival in June each year, and for the holiday season, they’ve curated a collection of short films.”
Nobel, who founded the Foundation for Art & Healing, suggests, “Bring over a plate of cookies and suggest viewing a few films together. Films invite conversation. It doesn’t have to be a deep support group conversation — it can just be, ‘What did you find interesting in this film?’ or ‘Did it remind you of anything?’ From there, you’re off to the races.”
Finally, a nice walk can be a great idea, as long as you’re mindful about someone else’s mobility limitations. And to that end: if you live in a cold winter climate, can your elderly neighbor leave their house, or do they need help shoveling snow? Nobel says, “As people age, they can lose some logistical management capabilities, in addition to the physical strength they need for shoveling.” The point here is for all of us to be more intentional in support of those around us.
Don’t Ignore the Persistence and Reality of Grief
Pftizinger writes, “Nobel recognizes that the social momentum of ‘let’s just get on with life,’ relative to the pandemic might strongly collide with the grief and uncertainty that many are still experiencing.”
Nobel explains, “We integrate grief into our experiences — we don’t just package it and set it aside. I think that’s one of the reasons this holiday season will be stressful. People are going to have to dig into some of these painful, unresolved stories of the past two years.”
It’s best, he says, to both be open about admitting your loneliness and to take the opportunity to build a relationship with yourself. “Go through the family photo album on your own and remember the meaningful stories,” he says. “If you like to write, do some open-ended journaling about those stories. Connect with yourself through meditation, spend time outdoors, and in that, you can find a sense of wholeness and completeness. This can reduce your need for connection to other people.”
Next Avenue Readers Share Their Plans
At the conclusion of her article, Pfitzinger shares a few real-life testimonials from readers about how they plan to spend their holidays, especially if they are solo agers. We’ve condensed the stories below to display their nuggets of wisdom.
Lorelai Taylor, a solo ager whose family lives in another state, has become accustomed to holidays on her own, especially Thanksgiving. But she seeks to make it festive for herself, purchasing and cooking single-servings of turkey and “fixings” and eating them while watching holiday film favorites. “I find solace and quiet joy spending these days on my own terms, at my own pace, and with no expectations from anyone for me to do anything,” Taylor says.
Tony Erickson, a single retired male, takes a different route. He follows in his generous parents’ footsteps and invites a varied collection of friends to the holiday table who would otherwise be alone. He pulls out all the stops, too, saying, “I pull out my mother’s china and silver and think about my parents and all of the wonderful holidays that I shared with them and now (these gatherings) are creating new memories for my friends.”
Jill Grundfest chooses to spend Thanksgiving with six of her closest friends, a tradition they’ve been faithfully following for twenty years. “Six of my women friends and I celebrate Thanksgiving at one of our houses — she is willing to clean and cook! She does the main dish, and we all contribute side dishes and dessert,” Grundfest says. “None of us are married, none of us have children, and all of us are now over 63.”
And finally, Sheila L. focuses on flexibility in her holiday celebrations. “I have lived away from family since I started working (in the 70s) and have adapted my plans every year to invitations to friends’ homes, out to dinner, to going away, to hosting a group as well, even cook for ourselves. Never know from year to year!”
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)