Written by Becky Barnhart, Executive Director, Senior Community Center
This time of the year brings memories, expectations and plans as we enter the traditional holiday season. Cooler temps, family gatherings, gift exchanges and many other traditions are embraced by many folks. But the change of seasons and the holidays can also be an especially difficult time for older adults.
Studies and reports from various organizations have shown a correlation between social isolation in older adults, as well as physical and mental decline.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss. These difficulties can be exacerbated during the holidays.
And with this increased risk, also comes a sobering statistic of suicide in seniors, which should be alarming to all of us.
The QPR Institute, which was founded in 1999 to provide “innovative, practical and proven suicide prevention training,” to agencies and individuals, ranked Kentucky in the top 20 states for rate of suicide for all ages – 18.1% compared to 14.5% nationwide for every 100,000 persons. From ages 55+, the national rate increases to 18.6% for every 100,000 considered in the “senior adult” age categories. Sadly, the highest suicide rate for any age group is 85+, which averages 22.4% for every 100,000 people across the U.S.
Those of us that work with or have senior adults in our lives can help positively impact those statistics by doing simple things, which can be vitally important during the holiday season.
After our father died, my siblings and I wrote 52 family memories on slips of paper, put them in a beautifully decorated Memory Jar and gave it to our mother for Christmas. She treasured it for the entire year, as she read a new memory each week. She also emailed us (this was long before text messages) with that week’s memory. This created more conversations and memories to share with mom, which was vital since all her children and grandchildren lived away.
It’s a simple and inexpensive gesture that anyone can do for their parents, grandparents or great grandparents that may help during the holidays and winter months.
Another creative idea is to design a photo book, which can be easily done now with digital photos and online software. Those of us that are Baby Boomers and older come from a generation where pictures, scrapbooks and photo albums were the only social media avenues. Old pictures can be scanned or captured by our phone cameras and turned into a keepsake photo book. Again, this is another invaluable gesture for the recipient, especially if you allow them to tell stories about the photos captured.
Calling or visiting a senior is another easy way to connect with them and lessen the loneliness they may be experiencing, especially as the days get shorter and colder. A phone call or a friendly visit is an easy way to connect, and doesn’t take much time or cost much.
When appropriate, get them out of the house to see holiday lights around town. Or offer a ride to the grocery store or a medical appointment. Or encourage them to get involved with their local senior center or other social agency or nonprofit. Retirees have lots of experience, wisdom and perspective that nonprofits need (and want!)
As the director of a senior center, we frequently hear from new members that they’re bored sitting at home, so come to the senior center for fellowship, engagement, and many other opportunities.
Check with other local resources, such as Audubon Area Community Services’ Foster Grandparent Program and Senior Companion Program, which can be reached at (270) 683-1589. The Green River Area Development District (GRADD) also provides multiple services for senior adults and can be reached at (270) 926-4433. Both agencies cover seven counties in the region, including Daviess, Henderson, Ohio, Mclean, Webster, Union, and Hancock.
Local houses of worship, hospice organizations and funeral homes may also provide grief counseling services and/or resources. Grief comes in many forms and can be heightened during the holidays.
Be proactive this holiday season and reach out to a senior neighbor, friend or family member who may experience social isolation and loneliness. Or volunteer with a local agency that works with senior adults. A small act will make a big impact for both of you.
Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distress or suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to speak with a trained counselor who specializes in suicide prevention. The call is free, confidential and available 24×7 in the United States. OL