Imagine waking up alone on Christmas morning, with no one to share in the joy of the holiday with you. Imagine getting dressed the way you always do, having breakfast the way you always do, and watching TV as you always do—nothing special about this day, no grandchildren squealing with delight as they tear open packages under the tree, no family dinner to look forward to later.
That is the scenario faced by tens of thousands of seniors who have no living family members or whose relatives who live far away and can’t visit at Christmastime. These seniors may come from a variety of faiths or backgrounds, but what they have in common is an estrangement from the holiday season, their faith traditions and all the seasonal merriment.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, as many as half of all long-term care residents have no living relations. Of those who do have family, around 60 percent of them never receive a visitor.
If that statistic makes you feel sad, consider it may be just the tip of the iceberg. It’s possible a similar number of seniors who reside at home or outside a care facility also lack regular visitors, either because they have no relatives or because their families are disengaged.
This holiday season, you have the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the lives of these forgotten seniors. Here are some ways you can make the holidays merry for them.
Problem: Family members live far away and can’t travel to visit during the holidays
Solution: Go high-tech
Help arrange a real-time video chat between the senior and his or her family members using a tablet computer. Software programs like Skype and FaceTime offer free or low-cost options for video conversations.
If the video chat goes well, don’t restrict it to the holidays. Offer to facilitate regular face-to-face teleconferencing each week or month.
Problem: Seniors receive no gifts or greetings during the holidays
Solution: Be a Santa to a Senior
The Be a Santa to a Senior® program, sponsored by Home Instead Senior Care®, makes the holidays merrier for those who will not be receiving gifts or visitors during the season. You can submit the senior’s information to a local participating Home Instead Senior Care office and allow him or her to be surprised with a personally delivered present. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to pull an ornament off the giving tree yourself to provide a gift for a lonely senior.
If your area doesn’t have a Be a Santa to a Senior program, look for similar opportunities through retailers and faith communities.
Problem: Isolation during the holiday season
Solution: Take a drive
Many seniors face the challenge of being isolated throughout the year. Physical frailty and giving up the car keys can keep a senior cooped up at home. This can be especially depressing during the holiday season.
If you are a private one-on-one caregiver, you can help alleviate the senior’s isolation by taking him or her for a ride to view holiday lights and decorations or to tour the fall foliage. If the senior gets around reasonably well, take him or her to the food court at the mall to sit and view the bustle of shoppers and the beautiful decorations.
If you work at a facility, try to arrange a holiday lights field trip for your residents who are capable of participating. You might be able to find a community sponsor to provide vans and additional supervision.
Problem: Seniors can’t share family memories because relatives are absent
Solution: Pull out the photo albums
One of the best parts of gathering with family during the holidays is sharing the “family lore”: funny or poignant stories of past events. When seniors have no living relatives, it means they can no longer share that story of the time the dog tipped the Christmas tree over or that time when Uncle Joe’s Santa beard fell off and revealed him as a fraud to the shocked young cousins. You can step in and act as a surrogate family member by asking to see family photos and encouraging the senior to tell you stories about the people and events pictured.
Problem: No way for a senior shut-in to volunteer during the holidays
Solution: Perform acts of charity from the living room
Many people volunteer for charity work during the holidays. If a senior you care for was one of the people who volunteered, he or she may feel they are missing out on a key part of their traditional holiday experience.
You can help them by participating in acts of charity right from their residence. They can buy a box of holiday cards and address them to troops stationed overseas. Or they can crochet blankets for babies at the children’s hospital. When you help them perform an activity that ‘gives back’ to the community, you let them engage in a meaningful way with the holidays and may boost their self-esteem and overall sense of well-being.
Of course, while caring for a lonely senior during the holiday season, it can be difficult to maintain professional boundaries. You may want to “go the extra mile” to express your fondness for some of your clients, but do not give or accept gifts if your employer’s policy prohibits it. Remember your presence in a senior’s life may be the greatest gift of all—no other present necessary.
How do you brighten the holidays for your clients? What challenges do you face? Tell us more in the comments!