'Tis the Season to Be Lonely: Tips for Connecting Over the Holidays

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The holidays can be a particularly difficult time for older Americans living alone, especially if they are in poor health or without family or friends at the time of year when songs are sung about gathering by the fire, kissing under the mistletoe and basking in the bounties of the season.

If you are one of the estimated 7 million Americans caring from a distance for a loved one limited by age, mobility or health, you may be particularly worried about him or her during a season that emphasizes togetherness. If your schedule or finances prevent you from visiting, the holidays can add another layer of stress and guilt.

But there are many things long-distance caregivers can do to keep loved ones connected to traditions, family, community and the joys of the season -- even from a distance.

1. Set up a holiday "phone tree"

Here's a holiday tree your 80-something mother can really use during the holidays. Work behind the scenes to set up a daily telephone chart that lasts for several days throughout the holidays. Line up as many loved ones as want to participate, from your mother's favorite niece in Michigan to her brother in Florida to the friend across town. Assign everyone a day and time to call (with you picking up the extra days) -- so every day during the holidays, your mother will receive a call from someone she delights in talking to.

2. Connect with community

There are many resources to brighten the season for those who are unable to leave the house. David, a lifelong musician suffering from depression, was largely homebound and isolated from his passion until his home care nurse connected him to Concerts in Motion. This wonderful organization brings live performances to those who are homebound or hospitalized.

Also consider Dorot, which offers telephone classes through its University Without Walls program and home visits and reading assistance through its Friendly Visiting program. Or connect with a TimeBank to see if your elderly mother might offer her services teaching knitting -- and receive the gift of someone else's time in return.

Or find a community that your loved one would like to be part of -- church or temple groups, a local senior or community center. Inquire whether the organization has a transportation assistance program, or a friendly visitors program that sends a church or synagogue member into the home. For help in connecting isolated loved ones to the community, ask a doctor about help from a social worker -- who can tap into elder services and other community resources to enrich daily life.

3. Choose gifts that keep on giving

Interaction is the best gift of all for someone who cannot get out. Here are some ideas:

Sharing memories: Put together and send a memory book that compiles photos and letters from family members and friends so your loved one can "visit" throughout the holidays and beyond. Or create a family calendar packed with fun photos each month. If you cannot be there to look at it together, suggest your relative page through it while you're on the phone together, prompting and sharing new stories as well.

Enjoying music: Music has been proven to improve mood and enliven the spirit. Load an iPod with songs from your loved one's favorite era, from Elvis to Big Band to chamber music. Make sure there is someone on hand to help with operation, whether a home health aide, a community volunteer from church or synagogue, a helpful teenager in her building, or a volunteer from a local Timebank program. Arrange for the helper to come more than once.

Extending the season: Flowers or fruit of the month can brighten the day throughout the year.

4. Get help on the front lines of care

If your loved one needs help with activities of daily life, such as dressing, bathing and shopping, trained home health aides can provide an essential first line of defense in maintaining health and safety. Over the holidays, a home health aide's companionship and compassion can make all the difference for someone isolated and alone.

Longtime Home Health Aide Waveney Franklin pays special attention to details to make the holiday season special for Sara Costigan, 96, who suffers from dementia and has no living family. "Oh, she loved champagne when she was stronger," says Waveney. "Now I get her sparkling cider over Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we can raise a glass together."

Waveney puts the festive cloth on the dining room table, positions the poinsettia from the landlord as the centerpiece, and cleans the apartment until it sparkles. Add a Christmas tree and blinking lights, and, as Waveney says, "She doesn't miss anything. I make sure it's special for her. There's such a soft spot in my heart for my clients with no family."

Throughout the year, but especially over the holidays, Waveney will encourage Mrs. Costigan to take out one of many photo albums and scrap books the home health aide has made for her. The nonagenarian will page through the book, prompted by her aide, telling stories and reminiscing about family and friends. "When she's feeling lonely, it really comforts her," says Waveney.

5. Keep the holiday spirit -- all year long

Now that you've built a system of connections for your loved one, don't stop on January 2. Keep up the church transportation assistance each Sunday or the visiting volunteer program from the temple. Extend your holiday phone tree throughout the year. The niece in Michigan can call Mondays at 5 before her yoga class, and the friend across town can call Friday at noon -- and maybe even transform calls into a Friday visit. On the 1 of each month, call to remind your loved one to turn over the family-photo calendar. February... March... April... Nothing leads to lasting change better than routine.