It’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least that’s what the popular Christmas song would have you believe. For many older people, the festive season can be a mixed bag of emotions, especially for those who are isolated and feeling lonely.
Ageing and loneliness
As people age, the chances of experiencing loneliness increase. According to the World Health Organization, globally more older women than men live alone, a primary cause of loneliness. Between 2006 and 2015, a third of older women in Australia and New Zealand were living alone, compared to 18% of men.
Loneliness rates begin to increase from the age of 64, with people 75 and over experiencing the highest rates of emotional loneliness at 19%. Some studies show the prevalence of loneliness in long-term care facilities ranges from 37% to 72%. Rates of ‘severe’ loneliness are almost double for aged-care residents compared with people living in their own home or with family and friends.
Impact of loneliness on older Australians
According to 2020 Australian research, older adults who are experiencing loneliness have a 58% higher risk of developing dementia compared to their less lonely peers. Loneliness is a risk factor for admission to long-term care, independent of other reasons like age, depression, dementia, disability, and social isolation. Other effects of loneliness include functional decline, premature death, and health risks equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Why older people experience loneliness during the holidays
As the summer holiday season draws near, even people who don’t often experience loneliness may begin to feel down. Being sensitive to the reasons can go a long way to helping the older people around you feel less isolated. Older people may experience one, some, or all of the following:
- Spouses, family, friends, and neighbours have passed away or are sick.
- Energy levels and mobility decrease, making it impossible to host huge gatherings. This loss of independence and opportunity to organise holiday celebrations can make older people feel they are a burden.
- Neighbourhoods change and local activities change with them.
- Customs like writing holiday cards or festive baking are difficult.
- Fewer holiday cards arrive, and they often bring news of illness or losses.
- Holidays are becoming more secular and less focused on supportive, faith-based communities.
- Changes in traditions – from music, activities, food, and even dressing up – can lead to feelings of nostalgia.
- Medication or health issues may not allow older people to imbibe or fully enjoy all the special food and drinks of the season.
How to support older people during the festive season
Being aware that people may be feeling lonely, even when they’re surrounded by family and friends, is the first step to supporting older people during the holidays. Next, take action to help them look forward to and enjoy everything the holidays bring.
Find out what holiday activities or traditions are important to them.
- Help them write holiday cards, or take mail to the post office for them.
- If they want to give gifts, take them shopping or help them make their purchases. Showing them websites for popular retailers gives older people the ability to make their own selections even if they’re not up to shopping.
- Ask them to tell you their favourite holiday memories.
- Unpack their holiday decorations and help them put them up – and pack them away later on.
- Look through photo albums with them and ask questions about the people and holiday activities in the photos.
- Include older people in the planning of family gatherings and ask their opinion on menu and drink choices. Make sure to include some of their choices in the day.
- If they have a favourite holiday dish they like to make, support them as much as needed to reproduce it.
- Make their favourite holiday music part of the celebration.
- Arrange for them to go to religious services.
- Help them plan how to get to family or holiday gatherings and ensure they have a way to get back home.
- If they find travelling difficult, visit them and bring children and pets (if allowed).
- Have a gift for them, even if they say they don’t need or want anything. Family photos, home-cooked meals for the freezer, or help getting to community activities are always good choices for someone who doesn’t want gifts.
The holidays can be lonely, especially for older people who may already feel isolated. Finding a remedy requires a coordinated and collaborative approach to managing loneliness in older people – and you must include them in the process. Advocare is encouraging everyone to consider how to empower the older people around you to enjoy the festive season. Chances are it will increase the enjoyment of everyone involved.
Get in touch with us with your ideas on how to support others in the community who may be at risk of experiencing loneliness during the holidays.
References and further reading:
Social isolation and loneliness among older people: advocacy brief. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2021. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
Is Australia experiencing an epidemic of loneliness? Findings from 16 waves of the Household Income and Labour Dynamics of Australia Survey, Working paper. Relationships Australia; September 2018.
Ending Loneliness Together (2020). Ending Loneliness Together in Australia. https://www.endingloneliness.com.au/resources/whitepaper/ending-loneliness-together-in-australia.