Visiting a senior living community last winter, I saw a resident sitting in the lobby. She had the ideal perch to watch the comings and goings of passersby, but I knew the holiday season can weigh upon seniors with difficult memories and loneliness. So, I sat beside her and told her about the card game upstairs and a nearby sewing session. She’d be welcome at either, I assured her.
She looked at me and smiled. “I’m very happy here watching people come and go. It’s very exciting,” she said. “From time to time, I get to chat with them. I see children coming in and going out. And I don’t like the sewing, and I don’t care for the card came.”
For some seniors (and people like me), people-watching remains an eternal fascination, while others prefer the social interaction of communal events. There’s no set rule either; some days find residents at senior living communities in the mood to curl up in their pajamas in their rooms with a book, and on other days they prefer to socialize with neighbors and friends. (Mealtimes are especially popular for that.)
But as temperatures drop and days get shorter, life can get particularly tough for seniors. Those who have recently lost a longtime spouse may feel even deeper pangs of loneliness around the holidays, and when freezing temperatures force seniors inside, loneliness builds. Flu and cold season abounds, and for seniors who are forced to be cooped up alone at home, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be a factor. Citing University of California-San Francisco research, a recent Houston Chronicle article notes that 43 percent of seniors feel lonely regularly, and during the holidays that number may increase.
For adult children or friends or loved ones of seniors, thinking about the holidays as trying times rather than a period of festivity and relaxation can be counterintuitive. But it’s important to check in with your loved one -- particularly if geographical divides are separating you over the holidays. And encouraging your loved one to be as active as possible during the daylight hours, and to bask in the sun whenever possible, will help mitigate the risks that come from isolation indoors.
Adult children tend to know their parents the best. If you know that your parent or loved one will enjoy remembering the good times, then it can be helpful to bring up happy memories associated with a lost loved one. Being merry and laughing can make a surprisingly big difference. “Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke,” as the Mayo Clinic puts it.
If you know your parent or loved one would rather not open a Pandora’s box along memory lane, focus instead on other things that will make him or her happy. One good way to temporarily refocus parents’ attention from the loneliness and isolation is to encourage them to volunteer and read to young children. If that’s something they would enjoy, it could remind them of activities that they did when raising their own kids. Shopping, cooking meals for their friends and a variety of other activities can also help mitigate seasonal blues.
Particularly in winter, there is a snowball effect -- if you’ll forgive the pun -- that occurs when seniors find ways to remain engaged and to interact with other people. That’s something I’ve seen time and again at senior living communities, where seniors can reclaim their independence by letting go of the stress and effort of everyday chores and home maintenance, and instead free themselves to do more meaningful and enjoyable things.
This may sound like marketing copy, but it’s the truth; I’ve heard countless times from seniors, who had previously spent all their time perched alone in front of a TV at home, that they wished they’d decided to join a retirement community years earlier. The decision, they almost invariably say, has made them more not less independent. (The perception that there will be a loss of independence, our research has found, is actually one of the top myths about senior living.)
Making friends can always be hard, whether it’s switching cities and schools as a child, or leaving one’s comfort zone and joining a senior living community. But when you and your parent or loved one tour the community, it’s vital to remember that all the residents who are flourishing now were once newbies, who had to find their way.
Now, you’re probably thinking – oh, my mom will do what she wants to do.
But, the fact is, nothing steals a senior’s independence more than having no choice but to sit at home alone watching TV. Meanwhile, seniors living in a retirement community have realistic choices. They can still watch TV in their apartment. But, they can also choose to socialize and participate in activities just outside their doors; they can leave the property as part of an excursion or trip to the store on the community bus, or simply watch the hub bub in the lobby. Plenty of choices all year round.
It’s never a good feeling to be depressed, isolated, or bored. When one adds chilling temperatures, short days and unreliable sunshine, it can start to wear on you over time. We’d all be wise to keep that in mind this winter, whether our parents and loved ones call home their longtime houses or a senior living community. Checking in as regularly as possible in person, or in other ways when that’s not possible, goes a long way.