What are you doing for the holidays? This question, I’ve noticed, can be difficult. When I was younger, it was easy. One expected to hear of trips to parents and grandparents, sometimes in far away and exotic locations.
I find that the question is no longer easy. Now that I am in my early sixties, with friends ranging in age from their nineties to their fifties, I simply don’t ask it. I’m afraid of the answer. What do I do when the answer is “Nothing” or “I don’t know” or “I’m ignoring it.” How do I respond to that? Do I say “Oh, I’m so sorry” or “That’s awful” or “Good for you”? Since none of those are great choices, I simply don’t ask. Is this true for you too?
Many older people spend Christmas* alone. It happens. One of the reasons I preach the benefits of shared housing is to bring human connection back in to peoples lives.
Today’s boomers often don’t have children. That means that there are no grandchildren. Being with grandchildren is a magnet that motivates grandparents everywhere to travel miles and miles to be with family. Though it’s hard to find the data on how many seniors don’t have children, the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS) of 2012 indicated that 22 percent of people over age 65 currently are, or are at risk to become, “elder orphans”— childless and unmarried seniors.
Even if you have children, it can be an “off” year. Last year, while working with a client I mentioned that my home-mate and I were without plans. She brightened up and said, “Come to my house! We’ll cook together.” I said, “What about your son and his family? Aren’t you going to be with them?” “Well no, they are going to her family this year.” Sometime the same week, working with another client, the subject came up and once again I was surprised to hear that she and her husband would be alone, their children making plans with their in-laws.
Living alone, of course, makes it even easier to be left out of holiday gatherings. Having a home-mate doesn’t necessarily guarantee not being alone (they could go to be with their family), but I think it changes the experience of the holidays. A home-mate is someone to share planning, decorating, baking and other traditional preparations. A home-mate could be company for the actual holiday. Pat’s home-mate was incorporated into her family as described in this post. There’s something about sharing. As Drs. Olds and Schwartz point out in their book, The Lonely American, Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, that “Enthusiasm is a hard emotion to sustain if it cannot be shared with others.”
If you are going to be alone, the answer is not to be left out and hunkered down trying to cope with the holidays. I want to encourage you to take some action. It could make all the difference to you.
- Ask people you know and people in your neighborhood, “What are you doing for the holidays?” Should you hear that the person doesn’t have any plans, then…
- Offer to spend time with the person you’ve asked—it doesn’t have to be a big deal. A cup of tea, a glass of egg nog, or a meal prepared together. Go out for Chinese.
- Volunteer and show up. Look for Christmas meals being offered in your town by churches and nonprofits. Volunteer to help and then go. Christmas is about giving. Give your time and self to others.
Here’s a story about how Joan ended up having Thanksgiving with a neighbor.
Those clients of mine who didn’t have plans for Christmas? My home-mate and I invited them to Christmas dinner. It was lovely. I remember that the egg nog was much appreciated.
This year we are joining others at church for a Christmas dinner that welcomes everyone. What are you doing for the holidays?
Have you found yourself alone at Christmas? Have you had the experience of changing this by inviting someone? Have you invited and then been invited? Have you volunteered? Do you have a story about sharing the holidays with non family?
*Note, I’m focused on Christmas as opposed to Hanukkah, Kwanza and other winter celebrations because Christmas has such a strong cultural myth of the happy family around the tree played out over and over again in advertisements and entertainments.
Read more about navigating life with shared housing: Your Home-Mate and Observing the Holiday Season , When An Adult Child Needs a Home
Fran gets it. Refreshing comment/feedback. She touched on the truth. That’s the reason, I think, for a disconnected yet over populated world, not really seeing one another and getting to the heart of things, not seeing the truth.
No, we aren’t just responsible for ourselves. Have a family? Treat one another well and expand your world to include others, and not just around the holidays to make yourself feel charitable. In fact, actions like that create loneliness, distance. Are you alone? The circumstance may be travel distance from family and friends, loss of a loved one, or… refusing to be part of a dysfunctional family system,… or perhaps you are part of the problem and need to address change.
Volunteer? It’s a canned superficial “idea” that adds to disconnection, in my opinion. Some people are alone for giving too much and not getting anything in return.
I think the answer is to live beneath the superficial, collectively.
Ah words, words… I’m not clear on what you mean when you say “She touched on the truth.” I’m in agreement with your second paragraph. When I said “we are responsible for ourselves” I’m trying to impart the idea that our choices, our actions, our thoughts create the world we experience. In the year since the original post, I’ve been thinking lots about people don’t take actions that would make their life better – like living with a home-mate.
Volunteering works when it puts you in a context that allows you to give and receive, when it puts you in a community, when it makes you happy. Of course it wont’ work if you show up once.
When I ‘heard’, in my mind, myself writing this, I thought, ‘Wow, what a downer’. 🙂 So let me see if I can say the same things in a somewhat nicer way. 🙂 First of all, volunteer organizations are usually ‘booked’ 3-4 months in advance of the holidays, so if you want to volunteer, it easily could be too late by now. Secondly — people lie. I don’t remember what it hit me that people were lying when I asked ‘Have any plans for the holidays’, but it wasn’t more than 10 years ago. I don’t even know how I knew they were lying, but somehow I knew. They will tell you they have plans or they will lie about why they aren’t spending the holidays with family. So on a huge social media website for retirees, I took a deep breath, shook a little, and asked this question: “Retirees who are estranged from their adult children”. The response was horrendous. This thread became one of the biggest ever on this web site of many years. It also became one of the longest running. Even people who did not post, they PM’d me for the following 18-24 months to thank me for starting the thread. People had been so ashamed — they thought that their adult children kicking them to the curb was rare, and that they were all alone. A LOT of people are estranged from their families, especially parents from their adult children. It is so bad that China passed a law, 2-3 years ago, that makes it a crime if adult children do not visit their parents once a month and provide for the parents’ basic needs (and the adult children’s response was: “How is it going to be enforced?” In other words, ‘catch me if you can’). So bad that a woman started a group, in Great Britain, named “Stand Alone”, and now Oxford University is studying estrangement. So bad that The Boston Globe called it “an epidemic”. So when you ask someone what he/she is doing for the holidays, just be prepared that they are to going to tell you the truth unless you know them somewhat.
Hmm… I’m a bit confused. I think you mean in the last line that they are NOT going to tell you the truth? And what was your question you posted? You make a good point about people being ashamed to admit that they might not have plans. But I say, each of us is responsible for ourselves. I can’t do anything about someone lying to me. I can do something about lying to myself. And my main point is that waiting for someone else to take a first step is not productive. Trying and being proactive might be. Thanks for writing.
Yes, I left out the ‘not’. And, no, I don’t think that each of us is responsible for ourselves. Not all the time. And, yes, I did do something proactive: I started a thread which said that ‘if you’re estranged from your family or your adult children, please know that you are not alone’. And parents who had been ashamed and secretive for years knew that they didn’t have to be anymore. Still, if you think you’re going to get a truthful answer from your peers — when you ask them what they are doing for the holidays — don’t count on it. In fact, depending on how well I know you — or not, if you ask me if I have plans for the holidays, I’ll probably lie too. Also, what apparently wasn’t taught at your seminary, was that being around just anyone is hardly a way to prevent loneliness over the holidays. In fact, it can make it worse — I know from experience that being in a room full of people you don’t know doesn’t do much, if anything, to assuage loneliness.
Well, what I did learn in seminary is that if you lie about who you are you are going to feel alienated from the people to whom you lie. I never suggested that finding company on the holidays was a way to manage the deep existential loneliness people can experience. And this is an important distinction and one that I am very aware of. I will state fully that we are responsible for ourselves. Unfortunately we live in a society that is not kind and certainly doesn’t support health and happiness. It makes it harder to take care of oneself.
Thanks for a perspective I’d not considered.
Welcome! Thanks for feedback on the piece. : )