Here at the AgingOptions Blog, we love the holiday season – mostly. All the trappings of this time of year tend to bring a sensory flood of mostly happy childhood memories: Christmas lights, decorations, familiar songs, fun foods. But regardless of our faith tradition, most of us, some more than others, approach this emotionally-charged season with mixed reactions. For many, the tidings of comfort and joy are tinged with a sense of loss, regret, and loneliness.
Every one of us has someone in our sphere of influence – particularly someone older – whose lives are characterized by loneliness. It might be an aging parent or grandparent, a nearby neighbor, or an old acquaintance we too often forget. Who is there in your life who fits that description? With that person in mind, your AgingOptions Blog editors have compiled this list of eight simple ways you can dispel holiday loneliness for someone who is on your heart.
Moreover, while this seems like a “holiday list” centered on the Christmas season, it’s virtually guaranteed to do the trick on any of the other 364 days of the year. Consider this list as food for thought, and a plea to plan ahead for 2023 so that the senior loved ones we care about will experience far less loneliness in the year to come. (And here’s a secret: the one who derives the most blessing just might be you!)
Here, then – in no particular order – are our eight caring gestures you can undertake, starting today, to show a lonely senior loved one how much they matter to you. Feel free to share this list and spread the love.
Caring Gesture #1: Pay a Visit
During the COVID pandemic, restrictions made in-person visits difficult if not impossible. We also know from news accounts that the pandemic made already lonely seniors feel even more isolated and forgotten than before. Fortunately, those pandemic-triggered impediments are mostly gone, and with them our excuses not to visit.
The fact is, there’s really no substitute for face-to-face closeness – the power of a touch or hug can’t be conveyed any other way. Yes, an in-person visit might be inconvenient, especially if the person you care about lives some distance away. But if it’s at all possible to schedule an actual visit together, you really should try to make the time.
Of course, there are many lonely seniors living on their own, right there in your neighborhood. Visiting them, or inviting them into your home, should be much easier. You can always take the risk of an unplanned knock on their door just to say hello, or engage them in a chat when you see them in the yard or at the mailbox. Face time goes a long way toward dispelling isolation and loneliness.
Caring Gesture #2: Make a Phone Call
For those under 40, “communication” seems to involve email and text more than actual phone conversations. But our guess is that, for most seniors, the power of electronic communication pales in comparison to an actual voice on the phone. Seniors remember when long telephone calls were the number one means of communicating, especially when visiting in-person was impossible or impractical. For a lonely senior, your voice on the other end of a phone call might be the highlight of their day.
When you call, remember that many older people struggle with hearing loss, so you may have to adjust your rate of speech. Speak slowly and distinctly, and be patient. It’s usually best not to plan a call when you’re tight for time, since the person you’re calling will likely sense the fact that you’re in a rush. Have a few questions at the ready if the conversation lags. If you’re calling a loved one, for example, you could ask them about shared holiday reminiscences, or remind them how much you loved their almond cookies. These shared memories carry a powerful message.
Above all, remember the amazing power of the human voice! The words you share and your tone of voice will convey a note of love and care that no email or text can ever replicate.
Caring Gesture #3: Send a Note
Speaking of notes – have you noticed that writing and receiving hand-written notes and letters seem to be a lost art? Having someone you care about write you a card in their own handwriting is such an unexpected gesture that even a few simple lines can say a great deal – including, “I care enough about you that I took the time to write.”
For older adults, those hand-written letters and notes from you are something they’ll appreciate, even treasure. If you can’t visit in person or chat via phone – or even if you can – a note is a tangible way of dispelling that sense 0f isolation that threatens the mental, emotional, and physical health of many seniors. You might enclose a cartoon or newspaper clipping – or have your children add a few lines and sign their names.
If writing an actual letter seems too daunting, pick up a few “thinking of you” greeting cards and some postage stamps. Then get in the habit of sending regular notes of encouragement, the old-fashioned way – via U.S. mail. For older adults, getting a personal card in the mail is a special joy.
Caring Gesture #4: Bring a Treat
Everyone loves to receive something tasty and sweet to enjoy, not just at Christmas but all year long. If you’re making cookies, set aside a few for an older friend or relative (bearing in mind their possible dietary restrictions, of course). A small box of candy or a jar of homemade (or store bought) jam is a low-cost way of saying, “You were on my mind.”
For seniors who live in a group setting – an adult family home, for example – you might want to check with the staff to see if you can bring a plate of cookies or some other treat that the other residents and staff can also enjoy. Many seniors would love to be able to share but are unable to for various reasons. The treats you bring might help open the door for them to other friendships in the community where they live.
Remember that some facilities may restrict what homemade goods can be brought in to share. If store-bought is the only acceptable alternative, no problem. Again, it’s important to take dietary restrictions into account: candy can include sugar-free choices, for example, or you can make sure some of the baked goods are gluten-free.
Caring Gesture #5: Bring a Gift
If food isn’t an option, small gifts are always appreciated as a way of showing you care. A gift doesn’t have to be something brand new: a figurine from your home, or a piece of a child’s artwork in an inexpensive frame, sends an encouraging message. Every time your older friend or loved one uses the mug you gave her or the decorative tray your children made, it will remind them of your love and attention.
The point of a gift is not to impress or create a sense of obligation. A gift is a tangible representation of your relationship with a lonely senior. Bringing a small gift can also be a great conversation starter as you talk about the scarf you knitted or the keepsake you decided to pass along.
Caring Gesture #6: Brighten Their Surroundings
Isolation and loneliness can bring on a sense of sadness, even depression, which in turn can lead to a lonely older person neglecting their surroundings. When you pay a visit, especially if you’ve been in their home before, consider bringing along something that will brighten their home or apartment with a splash of color or a reminder of the seasons.
A vase of flowers is the obvious choice – from your own yard or from the grocery store. One woman we know always keeps her eyes open at thrift stores for inexpensive florist vases – typically available for a dollar or less. She keeps 6-8 of them around so, when she gives flowers away, she never has to ask for the vase to be returned. It’s an inexpensive but appreciated gesture. (If you do bring flowers, make certain the recipient doesn’t have allergies or other sensitivities. Lilies or lilacs might be lovely in the yard, but their scent can be overpowering in someone’s living room!)
You can also brighten up someone’s home with a seasonal gift, like a holiday wreath or decoration of dried flowers for fall. If you’ve made multiple visits, you might think of other ways to cheer up their home – a colorful throw pillow, perhaps, or a set of tea towels, or a new desk lamp. Here again, a small, inexpensive gesture can bring lasting benefit and help a senior know that someone cares.
Caring Gesture #7: Send the Sound of Music
Today, we tend to assume most people listen to music on a streaming service or smart speaker – but we doubt that’s true for most seniors, many of whom probably prefer tangible media such as CDs. As you get to know a senior neighbor and learn their tastes, you might pay attention to the role music plays in their home. Then on a future visit, bring them a CD that you think reflects their preferences. (Yes, compact discs are still readily available!) A classical CD, or a disc of Gospel tunes or 1960s oldies, will be deeply appreciated, and will remind the senior of you every time they play it.
If the senior you care about doesn’t have the ability to listen to music, a portable CD player might be a worthwhile investment – they’re readily available for $40-50. And if your loved one might enjoy streaming music, offer to help them set it up on their phone, computer, or smart speaker. Better yet, ask one of your kids to do it with you.
Caring Gesture #8: Spend Some Quality Time
If there’s one thing that’s at a premium these days, it’s time. Yet time is the one thing many lonely seniors have too much of. When you spend your days alone and lonely, time tends to creep by, one hour looking pretty much like the one before.
With that in mind, this final caring gesture more or less encapsulates all the rest. The simple act of spending time with someone you care about who might be prone to loneliness is the one gift no one else can give but you. Taking the time to think about someone who is alone, and then demonstrating your willingness to share your hours with them, is a message whose healing power can’t be overstated.
For some, visiting with an older friend or relative can be a joy – but in other cases the experience might not be so easy. You might need some ideas on how to pass the time. How about these?
- Read to them: Many seniors have lost some visual acuity, and would love to have you read to them – passages from a favorite novel, snatches of poetry, verses from Scripture, or even the news from the daily paper. Conversely, if the loved one in your life can still read, ask them to read to you.
- Sing with them: This might be a bridge too far for some, but for a senior who enjoys music, having you sing with them – hymns, Beatles songs, show tunes – is a delight, and a terrific way to pass the time.
- Play a game: For seniors who can still enjoy Scrabble or gin rummy, games are not only fun, but they’re also mentally stimulating – for both of you.
- Look at photos: Family photos carry powerful associations. Taking time to flip through a photo album (digital or printed) is a great way to start conversations and bring back memories.
- Listen to them: Yes, you may have heard their stories before. Nevertheless, when today’s seniors pass from the scene, many of their memories will disappear with them. Someone who is 80 today was born during World War II and has experienced a huge amount of history. Encouraging them to reminisce about their college days, their first apartment, their time in the Navy, their first job, or the hard lessons learned through the decades, will build a powerful emotional connection between the two of you. And on top of that, you might very well learn something new.
There you have it. The next step is up to you. With a little effort and creativity on your part, the senior loved ones in your life can experience a lot less loneliness and isolation in the year ahead, and everybody will benefit! Happy holidays from your friends at AgingOptions.