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.