Lonely this Christmas

Try to imagine a house that’s not a home. 
Try to imagine a Christmas all alone.
The only things I see
Are emptiness and loneliness
And an unlit Christmas tree.

Songwriters Jeremy Lanning, Michael Chapman, Nicky Chinn. Song by Mud

It is no surprise that for those who experience loneliness in their lives, Christmas can be a particularly difficult time of year.  Everything on the television, in the shops and in the general collective conscience seems to be telling you that this is a time of great happiness, families coming together, huge excesses of food and gifts being given and received.  But what if you have no plans for December 25th, and the Turkey dinner for one is not looking very appealing?

You can of course experience a sense of loneliness at any age, but many older adults, who have lost their spouses, or whose families have moved away, are perhaps more likely to find themselves spending longer periods of time on their own.

My mother lost her beloved husband living with dementia in a care home over 2 years ago.  She has been living alone for over 4 years.  She never complains, but she does sometimes admit that when I am leaving after a visit, the house suddenly feels very empty and quiet.  She is grateful for the companionship of the radio and the television, but says that in the winter particularly, the day feels very long when there is nothing in the diary.

Loneliness is not just experienced when you are on your own.  Being alone and being lonely are two very different things, as many people can enjoy great contentment being on their own. Perhaps one of the worst feelings is when you are surrounded by other people, but you have a profound sense of not being particularly connected to them.  You go through the motions of putting on the Christmas hat or pulling a cracker, but your heart really isn’t in it, because it isn’t where you want to be.  John, a man living in a care home told me that Christmas reminds him of all he has lost.  He sometimes says he is overwhelmed by memories of when his children were little and the excitement of opening their stockings together.  He also remembers his own family Christmases when he was small and can picture his mother standing in the kitchen stirring the Christmas pudding.  John says that whilst he wants these happy memories to be a comfort to him, he sometimes pushes them aside, as they leave him feeling the painful contrast of his current Christmases with what he describes as a “group of kind strangers.”  Like my mother, he doesn’t grumble, but there is a sense of sad resignation that this is the reality for so many people as they age.

So, what can be done to make this better?  We cannot bring back people’s younger selves, their lost parents and spouses, and we can’t pretend that Christmases will ever be quite the same.  However, for care teams working in care homes, our role as ‘kind strangers’ is still very important.  We can find ways to lessen the sense of loneliness for individuals we support through moments of affection and laughter.   We can find out what a person’s favourite food, song or film was and surprise them with a treat.  We could help people contact a family member or old friend through the power of technology.  For some individuals, helping them do something for someone else who isn’t having an easy time can help, such as donation to a children’s charity or adopting an animal through the many rescue and wildlife charity schemes.  

But the most important gift we give people at Christmas is our time.  When we stop to sit and chat, or pick up a phone to talk to a relative living alone at home or in a care home,  this is the ‘Gold, Frankincense and Myrr’ of the festive season.  For that small moment in time, at least, we are saying to that person, “I’m here for you. You are not alone.”

Consultant and Trainer

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