By LOIS KINDLE
Many of us are so busy planning Christmas celebrations with family and friends, we forget there are thousands of seniors around us who live alone and have no one.
“There are people in this community who feel very much alone, whether by fate or by choice,” said Karen Fredricks, a retired clinical social worker and current board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We should all become much more aware of them.”
According to national statistics, between 18 and 26 percent of seniors live alone, said Florida licensed Mental Health Counselor, National Certified Counselor and Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor Anna Lively.
“To be honest, I think that’s low,” she added. “Ninety percent of the population in Sun City Center are seniors, and a significant number of them live alone.
“Those who do and are secluded have an increased risk of mental health (issues), suicide and dying sooner.”
Lively is quick to point out that being alone and being lonely are two different things. Some folks stay active and maintain contacts outside the home, while others are resistant to making new friends or establishing new patterns of behavior.
The good news is there are things we all can do to help lift the spirits of folks who feel estranged and forgotten. www.Agingcare.com and other online sites like Home Instead Senior Care have lots of tips for enhancing any senior’s holiday experience.
These include the following:
• Listening actively with empathy, regardless of the tone and topic. Helping someone express what’s bothering them helps release their stored sadness, anxiety or tension and opens them up to new ways of thinking about the holidays.
“Seniors truly respond to kind words, and they need a sense of being heard,” Fredricks said. “They need to have an opportunity to talk.”
• Helping an elder add decorative, mood-lifting touches to his or her surroundings. You can prolong the fun by doing so in stages and encouraging conversation on the joy of past holidays.
• Including a senior in one of your holiday celebrations, even the simplest. Letting that person contribute in whatever way he or she is able can have a huge impact by showing they are loved and still meaningful.
Getting them out of the house and going for a drive to look at holiday lights in the neighborhood is just one example.
• Talking with an elder’s religious organization about possible one-on-one visits to provide social and/or spiritual support. Other groups can also help. Home Instead Senior Care sponsors the “Be a Santa to a Senior” program, which provides Christmas gifts to folks who might not otherwise receive any. You can submit a senior’s name to be included in the program, and you can take a name off the giving tree to provide a gift for someone else.
David Scott, owner of the Home Instead Senior Care Sun City Center franchise, recently completed his first Be a Santa to a Senior program by placing a giving tree in the Sun City Center Area Chamber of Commerce office.
“The generosity of the Sun City Center community overwhelmed me and made me proud to be a part of it,” he said afterward. “We served 40 seniors this year and hope to expand the program to serve hundreds next year.”
• Helping a senior do charitable acts from home. For example, they could buy a box of holiday cards and address them to military personnel stationed overseas or patients in the hospital or nursing home. Or they might knit or crochet caps or lap blankets for hospitalized babies, veterans or shut-ins.
• Preparing a baked, traditional sweet. If the senior lives in an assisted living facility or nursing home, make enough to share with his or her friends.
• Of greatest importance, spend some quality time with a person who is lonely. It’s the most significant thing you can do to make that someone feel loved and included. Share the moment of togetherness by looking at the person’s old photos, listening to Christmas music, watching holiday movies, doing a puzzle or simply sharing conversation over a cup of tea.
“It’s important to find out what an individual has enjoyed during their lifetime,” Lively said. “Was it being in nature, talking or engaging in politics, listening to music? Ask them specific questions about their lives, what they remember about their childhood or yours (if you’re related). Then go from there.”
Lively offered this thought, as well.
“It’s so hard to identify everyone who lives alone in this community,” she said. “But whenever we do, finding a kind word, smiling or sending a card takes only moments and can make someone’s day a bit brighter.”