Solving the Senior Loneliness Problem During the Holidays

Known by the clinical community as “The Christmas Effect,” it has been well-established that many people experience increased feelings of loneliness and isolation during the holidays. In fact, one study found that, among people who reported a psychiatric emergency during the holidays, the most common stressors reported were loneliness (40%) and being without a family (38%)

Those of us who serve as healthcare providers, care delivery leaders and patient advocates often have the most frequent interaction with these people and should serve as the first line of defense to help people avoid experiencing loneliness during the holidays. In fact, in a Washington Post article earlier this year, Sachin H. Jain, M.D., president CareMore, the integrated health delivery system where I work, calls for every one of us who are involved in the healthcare delivery system to take responsibility to treat loneliness. And, as identified in new research, more people are growing older without family members around them – meaning that today more than ever, there is a significantly greater level of disconnect and loneliness during the holiday season (and year-round).

I take this responsibility seriously in my role as the Chief Togetherness Officer at CareMore, and I urge you to do the same. In my twenty-eight years of experience as a social worker focused on the senior population, I have come to recognize the importance of togetherness on a person’s health. This is why we launched CareMore’s Togetherness Program, the industry’s first clinical program to address senior loneliness.

Many in the healthcare community have asked specifically what they should be telling patients; I want to share the tips that I often give patients to help them cope during what can be a challenging time.

Create New Traditions. If this holiday season is a person’s first without a spouse or family member, the memories of long-standing family traditions and the first season where those traditions are not possible can understandably create feelings of sadness and isolation. I encourage those who have recently lost a loved one to be purposeful about how traditions can be continued in a new way – whether through sharing a favorite holiday recipe with a local senior group, caroling with your community center or starting a new “Friendsgiving” holiday – which is what I did when I moved to a new city with no family or friends nearby.

Find Ways to Give Back. The holidays are a perfect time to think outside of ourselves and give back – whether to our communities or an international cause. Many local organizations like soup kitchens, homeless shelters and community centers host special meals for the underprivileged in the community that rely on volunteers; and, for those who are less mobile, there are several organizations that offer volunteer opportunities that can be done from home. One of my favorites is Operation Christmas Child where volunteers are simply asked to assemble boxes with supplies for children in need across the world. AARP’s Connect2Affect program is a great tool for finding local volunteer opportunities.

Pick Up The Phone. Many people experience The Christmas Effect due to loved ones being located in other parts of the world. As the holidays approach, scheduling regular phone calls to stay connected with loved ones near and far – even if only for ten minutes a week – helps to create new traditions and ensure people remain connected to loved ones. We had one CareMore member who wasn’t mobile enough to participate in local events or organizations, so I introduced him to a fantastic organization,                                                            Senior Center Without Walls. that provides call-in opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals, which are centered around topics like gratitude, exotic travel destinations and history. That member is now leading three of these groups, including monthly phone conversations, and says that he feels more connected than ever because of this.

Think Local. Most local community and senior centers, as well as places of worship, have special programs around the holiday season – from crafting classes for wreaths and decorations to candlelight caroling services – it just takes a few phone calls or some online research to find these opportunities (try EventBrite or Patch).Once you’ve taken the first step of signing up, I guarantee that you’ll be surprised to realize just how fun these classes can be and how many others in the class are also looking to make new friends.

Ask For Help. Start by reaching out to your healthcare provider to determine what special resources and activities they may be able to recommend to you. At CareMore Health, we are already planning our holiday programming to include local activities, such as sponsoring Meals on Wheels deliveries, collecting holiday cards that will be shipped to armed service members who are currently deployed, and hosting cultural dance demonstrations at our “Nifty After Fifty” fitness centers.

I am proud to be a part of an organization that is invested in delivering common sense solutions to meet the medical, social and personal health needs of aging seniors inside and outside the doctor’s office – whether the need is for transportation, integrated dental care, exercise programs – and, now, support to combat loneliness.

Since the launch of CareMore’s Togetherness Program in May, over 500 socially-isolated seniors have begun to receive regular outreach from CareMore to connect them to community and clinical resources. Further, CareMore employees are connecting with the cause, with 130 employees electing to “adopt” a patient who is lonely by initiating and maintaining regular contact.

We are beginning to measure the results of this initiative, but early feedback suggests we are making a real difference in the lives of the patients we serve. And, through these efforts, we aim to make the holiday season a time of joy, love and togetherness.

However, we all – whether part of an organization or not – have a role to play. What will yours be?

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