Recent studies confirm that loneliness is a serious issue for older adults today. The health impact of social isolation rivals obesity and even smoking. Loneliness raises the risk of heart disease, depression, sleep problems, stroke, hypertension and dementia, and can shorten life.
The holidays are considered a time of comfort and joy, when families get together and friends connect. Yet this can be a time of increased loneliness for seniors who are living with health problems, who have recently lost a spouse, or who live far away from family. Here are six ways to help these beloved family members feel connected.
- Help them continue to feel like a central figure of the celebration. A grandmother who once hosted the family festivities can be relieved that someone else is now doing the hard work—yet it can be a sad time, as well. Involve older loved ones in planning and preparation as much as they can and want. Ask their advice. Consult with them about traditions. Once the festivities begin, assist your loved one in getting around if they are nervous about falling. And if they use a wheelchair, arrange seating so they are fully included.
- Talk to other guests ahead of time. Family members and friends who haven’t seen your loved one in a while may be unsure about how to relate to people with hearing loss, mobility problems or memory loss. Have a chat before the visit. Fill guests in on what’s going on with your loved one, describe changes they may notice, and provide suggestions for successful communication. This will put them more at ease and make them feel confident as they interact with your loved one.
- Help loved ones who have hearing loss. Hearing loss can be very isolating, especially in a large gathering. Background noise makes it hard for people with hearing loss to make out conversation, and there isn’t as much time for careful one-on-one interaction. If your loved one balks at using their hearing aids, this is a good time to remind them. Turn down the music, and remind guests to face your loved one and speak slowly and clearly.
- Encourage interactions with children. If the youngest family members are visiting from out of town or don’t see older loved ones very often, a little planning ahead can make it more likely that the generations will mingle. Talk to children about your loved one’s health conditions. Perhaps assign an older child to help out. Even people with dementia can often connect well with children. Plan an activity they can do together—a craft project, a simple baking task, or perhaps looking at photo albums and reminiscing. Hearing stories of when their parents were young is also something children often enjoy!
- Visit loved ones who live in a senior care community. If a loved one’s health condition means they can’t visit you and it’s best for them to stay at their skilled nursing facility or assisted living community, visit if at all possible. Bring an appropriate gift—a framed family photo, soaps and lotions, or a warm robe. Ask staff for ideas if you’re not sure. Maybe you could plan a little party for their friends at the facility. Senior communities usually have a calendar full of festive events, so plan to be your loved one’s guest.
- Plan holiday phone calls in advance. Sometimes we can’t be with our older loved ones over the holidays, so we call to wish them a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah. Don’t treat these calls like an obligation, to be rushed through so you can get back to the busy day. If possible, schedule a time that you’ll call, so your loved one doesn’t call you just as the gravy has come to a boil. If other family members are visiting, pass the phone around. A video chat might be even better. And plan to call again a few days after the holidays, to help your loved one avoid post-holiday depression.