The words and melody from the radio fill my car as I drive to the post office to mail the holiday cards. We have snow. It looks like a winter wonderland. And kids, amid shrieks of laughter and merriment, are sledding down our shared driveway on anything they can find that's large enough to sit on. Sun is shining, snow balls are flying, and I'm certain school vacation is adding to this happiest of times.
Then my counseling background kicks in and I remember that holidays aren't always the happiest of times for people. So I decide to check in with a few older people and see how they're doing. (I'm a counselor, trained to ask objective questions.) My findings:
The consensus, from my small sample--but there's no disagreement: This is the haa, haa-py-est time of the year for children who have none of the responsibilities of adulthood, for newly marrieds who are looking forward, and for young couples with children who still believe in Santa. It's an especially happy time when older family members are geographically near enough to children and grandchildren so that they can gather together to celebrate and talk about shared past experiences. Meanwhile the excitement of the children in the family provides a background of energy and optimism.
"The holidays are a time when our mind drifts back to past Christmases that were happy times. It's a sentimental time," recalls one older widow. "It's a wonderful time when families can get together, yet a lot of people are completely alone. As people get older, they have experienced losses. Especially for those who've lost their mates, other people's happiness can be a reminder of the losses we've incurred. We're just more vulnerable to that kind of thing when we get older." "Unless there's a lot of family around and a lot going on, it's not the happiest time of the year. It's depressing," shares a 70-year-old man.
There's agreement that it takes effort for older people to find this a happy time. "It doesn't just happen," says one. "It's what you make of it when you're older," says another. "If you make the effort to be with people it's good, but it can be exhausting. We may continue to decorate and continue to write notes on the Christmas cards because we want our home to look festive and we like to get letters back after we write the notes. But we need to trim down and trim back so we aren't too tired to enjoy."
So then I ask the question: How can younger people help? Can they help?
1. Keep in close contact with elders--aunts, uncles. Make sure they're not forgotten.
2. A phone call even; it doesn't have to be a visit. I had a wonderful phone call from a far-away relative recently. You know older people don't relate to an email as they do to a phone call.
3. It's nice to take older people out to something, but take them to something that is rather quiet, that isn't too taxing an experience.
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OK, everyone. Why not pick up the phone and talk with at least one older person who lives alone or feels isolated. Brighten his or her day. Make these older people feel special, cared about...because they are. Raise their self-esteem. Add interest to their lives. Major studies confirm that connections are one of the most important factors in successful aging. It may not be the Haa, Haa-py-est time of the year for most older people, but we can make it better.