“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” according to the old Andy Williams song.
But in real life, many people find the days and weeks surrounding the holiday season a time of stress, anxiety and loneliness.
“I think a lot of people would say that the holidays are the worst time of the year,” says Ken Duckworth, M.D., the medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “They’re just straight up miserable, and that’s not only for people with clinical depression.”
And if the public at large has a hard time coping, the unique pressures of senior life can make things even more extreme for older Americans.
There many reasons for this; increased incidence of serious health issues, greater isolation from family and friends, more pronounced economic uncertainty, a sense that time has passed you by.
The list goes on and on.
Nothing increases the sense of loneliness more profoundly than being widowed.
After the loss of a spouse, every successive “first” is filled with pain and emotional turmoil. A first birthday. A first anniversary. A first family gathering. And, of course, a first holiday season.
No matter how much family and friends reach out to help a bereaved senior rediscover a zest for life, all of these “firsts” can still be quite heartbreaking. And as much as we would like to offer a few ways to avoid those feeling, grief is an unavoidable part of loss.
But your loved one is not condemned to relive their pain forever.
The best antidote to loneliness is friendship.
If the couple lived in a skilled nursing facility, there should be professionals on site to help facilitate this, but bereaved seniors who live alone may only find support in families and friends
Unfortunately it is often inevitable that, after the death of a spouse, some friends will drift away. It’s not a malicious thing. It’s just that the dynamic that cemented the relationship in the first place has been altered by the spouse’s death.
The best thing that you can for your surviving parent is to ever-so-gently help them discover communities of like-minded seniors.
Fortunately, there is a remarkable array of groups out there. Some are limited to seniors, while others are open to including a wider variety of ages, so don’t limit the search to stereotypical activities for older people. There is no need for a senior in search of friendship to be limited to weekly bridge games (not that there is anything wrong with bridge, mind you).
Here in Greater Cincinnati, the possibilities are limitless.
There are seniors groups for movie lovers that include weekly excursions to movie theaters, book-reading groups at local libraries or bookstores, senior-oriented outings to local theaters for drama-lovers, as well. There are even groups for amateur astronomers and fans of steam engines.
There are scores of athletic opportunities for more active seniors— from swimming to ping-pong to biking to tap-dancing. Believe it or not, there are even groups for seniors who want to learn about competitive body-building.
Education has always been an area where diverse groups meet, and Cincinnati has an abundance of opportunities for lifelong learning—writing, cooking, technology— many local university campuses offer free tuition to students 60 and over.
Know when to push and when to hold back.
The point is that, for those in mourning, it is not a lack of options that is keeping them from rediscovering the world around them. It may be a lack of confidence, fear of failure, or maybe just a desire to hide from the world.
Losing a spouse can be traumatic, and many people can’t bear the idea of life going on without that partner. They can’t imagine expanding their lives without the spouse who had been with them every step along the way.
Family and other supporters must find a balance of nurturing and nudging that eases a bereaved senior back into the world without pushing to hard.
Don’t just talk. Listen, as well. Offer encouragement. Help them be bold. We all have things we’ve wanted to try but never had the courage to try.
This is a moment for re-discovery.
Mind you, it may be too early to say that to a surviving spouse, but discovering that new world could be the first small steps toward recovery.