In the lead-up to the festive season – with all its busyness and merriment – we might forget that, for some older people living on their own, Christmas can actually be the loneliest time of the year.
By Reverend Caroline Leys
In this season of "goodwill to all", it’s worth considering the seniors in our communities who may be vulnerable in this way.
The changing dynamics of society have seen more seniors living alone in Aotearoa New Zealand, with 24% of those aged 65+ living on their own. Almost 40% of Māori octogenarians and 28% of non-Māori 85-year-olds who participated in research by the University of Auckland said they were always, often, or sometimes lonely.
Loneliness can be particularly accentuated during the Christmas season. Many of the usual organised activities and clubs for older people may be closed down over the break, and for those who have lost loved ones – which of course happens more frequently with age – their absence can be keenly felt at Christmas.
Loneliness and social isolation may therefore be some of the most challenging issues facing older people today, and can be a serious threat to wellbeing. The detrimental effect is comparable to other health risks, such as obesity and smoking – and alarmingly, people who feel lonely are more likely to suffer an early death by 30-60%.
As an antidote to this, research indicates that social connection with others and a sense of belonging directly influence general health. They can also bring psychological benefits, such as delaying the onset of dementia.
So making time for a chat with your neighbour across the garden fence or popping in with some homemade festive goodies this Christmas could provide a major boost emotionally, lifting people’s spirits and inspiring a sense of hope and optimism – adding the "merry" to Christmas.
As highlighted recently by The Hello Project and Age Concern, being aware of your neighbour’s daily routines, and checking things out if you haven’t seen them for a few days, could also quite literally save a life.
Let’s rediscover what it means to be a good neighbour
In all the hustle and bustle as we approach Christmas, we need to ask ourselves – do we leave behind those who’ve offered us most in earlier times, as we speed up and perhaps forget the core essentials of a caring society?
Or, at this most special time of year, do we take time to reconnect with vulnerable seniors living around us and rediscover the simple acts of neighbourliness that were a positive outcome of the Covid-19 lockdowns?
Surely, giving some thought and showing kindness to those we know to be in need of some friendly contact and companionship haven’t completely gone out of fashion? I pray that isn’t the case.
In most cultures, nothing supports connection more than food and the shared rituals of mealtime. These rituals do more than feed the body – they feed the soul, bolstering our emotional wellbeing and sense of belonging.
So why not invite the older person living alone next door or across the road to your Christmas BBQ or to a family meal over the holidays?
For an older person who’s without close family or friends, such interaction is precious – especially the chance to reminisce about days gone by, or to talk about a common interest that you might have, or share some fun activity with the younger generation.
So as we celebrate the birth of Christ bringing hope to humanity, one of the most hopeful things we can do is to choose connection and extend kindness and understanding to those around us – particularly the seniors amongst us who may not have the chance to speak to another person from one day to the next.
Reaching out to those who are lonely or isolated is showing the compassion and empathy that Jesus demonstrated. Taking time for the simple things and showing interest and concern for others is the life that he lived.
Jesus paid attention to all those around him with love, focus and justice-seeking. This turned out to have the ability to heal and change the world and it still can today. Each of us can be a part of that change.
He hōnore, he korōria Ki te Atua i runga rawa He maungarongo ki runga i te whenua He whakāro pai ki ngā tāngata katoa Kia whakahōnoretia anō hoki. In this Season of Christmas, may winds of change bring peace and new life to birth within your family and in our world.
Reverend Caroline Leys is director of spirituality at The Selwyn Foundation.