Presence by the Christmas Tree: Help Fight Bay Area Seniors’ Holiday Loneliness

There’s a magic alchemy to the holiday season, some kind of diffuse miracle that transforms the darkest, longest, and coldest nights of the year into some of the warmest and happiest. That miracle, that warmth, is the thrill of being surrounded by the people we love and the friendly goodwill abundant on the bustling city streets.

There’s a magic alchemy to the holiday season, some kind of diffuse miracle that transforms the darkest, longest, and coldest nights of the year into some of the warmest and happiest. That miracle, that warmth, is the thrill of being surrounded by the people we love and the friendly goodwill abundant on the bustling city streets.
That’s not, unfortunately, the holiday experience for everyone. For many older adults, this is a season of amplified feelings of loneliness and isolation—millions of seniors struggle with the holidays as the hardest time of the year. Their daily, tragic isolation is magnified by the ghosts of memories, a reflection on what or who is no longer around. This sadness, and possibly regret, can be far more dangerous than we may acknowledge.
The rate of suicide for older adults, for example, is one of the highest for all age populations—an older adult dies by suicide every 100 minutes. But, there’s some evidence that these rates can actually drop during the holidays. And that’s not because of the visits of ghosts and memories past; it’s because the intervention and love of the living can make an enormous difference. There are many people who go out of their way to help older adults manage seasonal mood afflictions, and, if you’re in the Bay Area, you can do the same.
It’s the holidays, after all: what will you give?

The Dangers of Isolation During the Holidays

Loneliness, in and of itself, is a terrible and gripping experience; it’s always present and never sleeps. But the secondary effects, the physical damage and the toll on health caused by loneliness, makes it far worse. Loneliness can literally weaken the immune system and make people, especially older adults, more susceptible to illnesses. And, in the winter months, when fog grips the Bay Area with more insistence than usual, this can be very dangerous.
It doesn’t take a doctor to tell you that isolation can feel particularly acute in seasons where memory reminds someone of happier, or at least more satisfying days. Most people tend to feel a little melancholy come winter, especially during the holidays—11 million people suffer from acute Seasonal Affective Disorder nationwide, with 25 million more afflicted by it to some degree.
What can be done? How can we help older adults deal with the sadness that can feel like an enormous burden this time of year? One way in which you can assist an older person to feel just a little bit better is to reach out and connect with them. A friendly “hello,” followed by a warm smile, can do a lot to lessen the impact of loneliness and sadness during the holidays for an older person.

Fighting Loneliness Starts Close to Home

There are additional ways to reach out to lonely, older people at this time of year. You can volunteer to help older adults in the Bay Area during the holidays. Or, you can begin to help people you know.
We all get busy in life, seemingly more and more every year. We rush around, and we’re always connected to our jobs, to our friends, to our social media, to what is piling up on the DVR, to that stack of unread books. It seems like there are many tasks vying for our time. If you have children, you know how quickly free time can be used up. There are many reasons why it can be difficult to connect with an older person in your life.
But it’s also one of the best things you can do. Maybe you don’t see your folks enough, or maybe there’s an aunt you barely talk to, but whom you know doesn’t have many people left in her life. She’s a presence in the back of your mind that you try not to think about—no one’s judging, as we all make compromises with our time or we’d go insane. Maybe there’s an old neighbor, or someone in your building who never seems to get any mail and never really goes out.
See them. Call them. Talk to them. Bring over cookies. If they’re family, bring them home movies, or go through photo albums together. Plan a night to watch the holiday movie you used to all watch together growing up, whether that’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, or Miracle on 34th Street. The title of the movie doesn’t matter as much as the opportunity to just be together.
Because the lives of middle-aged and younger adults are so fast paced, holiday traditions are changing. You don’t need to resurrect old traditions if those don’t fit into your busy lifestyles. Yet, you can create new traditions, new ways of connecting with the older people in your life.
The gift that most older people appreciate is the gift of time. Calling an older friend or relative can be a caring experience. Inviting an older person to lunch, or a drive in the early evening to look at the holiday lights can be a sweet and tender way in which to be together for a little while.

Seasonal Volunteer Opportunities in the Bay Area

Of course, you can expand that circle of empathy and extend it outwards if you desire, and have the time. Here are some festive holiday volunteering opportunities in the Bay Area:

  • Cable Car Caroling: This now 32-year-old Institute on Aging event is a cross-and-non-denominational holiday activity where volunteers and community members spread cheer and warmth to the elderly. Revelers visit older adults in their homes and sing songs of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and more. It’s a joyous time for older people and the carolers.Cable Car Caroling is an important fundraiser that aids the year-round mission of the 24-hour Friendship Line, a program of Institute on Aging. Businesses can sponsor a car, which demonstrates great community involvement, and employees can join in on the caroling. Carolers are needed, as is financial support to defray the cost. It’s a great way for individuals, businesses, or organizations to get involved with IOA and aging adults in their community. Please contact IOA if you’re interested in participating in the 33rd Annual Cable Car Caroling event in December 2017.
  • Santa to a Senior: This is a nationwide project that allows you to buy and send gifts to older adults who may not have many people in their lives. The website allows you to connect with someone in need, and give them something to smile about this year. Opening a present from a stranger who cares about them creates a sense of seasonal magic for the recipient—it’s a gift of light and love.
  • Preparing meals at food kitchens: The Bay Area might be getting more expensive, but it’s still full of heart. There are dozens of food pantries around the area, and dozens of soup kitchens—follow the links to find one near you. Many aging adults are homeless or poor, not sitting at home sipping eggnog and reminiscing. It’s a tragedy you can help alleviate. Many organizations also help bring food and friendship to older adults in need. In a time when life seems to be getting harder for the poor and forgotten in and around San Francisco, you can help make it easier with some nourishment and human connection.
  • Picking up the Friendship Line: At IOA’s Friendship Line, trained volunteers help seniors around the country who are feeling depressed, lonely, and even suicidal. We depend on volunteers to provide a compassionate ear and a caring voice, a calm and reasoned empathy, to those who need it most. And we especially need those voices to speak up during the holidays. Friendship Line is an accredited crisis intervention line, as well as a warm line. An older person or caregiver does not need to be in a crisis to call us at 800.971-0016.

As the year quickly moves forward, holiday times are often met with some degree of isolation, melancholy, and sadness over what has been lost. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Giving your time through volunteering your compassion can be a way to help yourself as you’re helping others.
If you’re interested in volunteering with the Friendship Line, or one of the many programs offered by IOA to help aging adults, caretakers, and their families, please connect with us today.

Picture of Dr. Patrick Arbore

Dr. Patrick Arbore

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