The holidays are a time for celebration, for gathering with friends and family and making the most of our time together. At least, that's often the Hallmark version, complete with tinsel and trim and holiday cheer.
What's the reality? For Mandi Speakman, director of the Chatham Council on Aging, people react to the holidays along a spectrum from "full-blown Santa's elves to those who find themselves severely depressed." Seniors, who comprise more than half the population of Chatham, Harwich and Orleans, share these mixed feelings, which can be exacerbated if they live alone and experience social isolation. "And if they had a recent loss of a family member, friend or beloved pet, it really hits home at the holidays," Speakman said.
It's not an issue we should expect to go away any time soon. In fact, seniors are living longer, often with chronic diseases, and isolation can be a real issue.
"There is no magic bullet," Speakman said. Whether it's holiday time or not, research has shown that the hard work of strengthening social connections is the key to a better quality of life, especially for seniors.
The first step in building a social network involves recognizing that those connections are a significant part of the cure for loneliness and isolation. Help can come from caregivers, mental health professionals and support groups who work to identify those at risk of being isolated. To help them recognize those symptoms, this year the "Savvy Caregivers Group" at the Chatham COA requested a special session during the holidays.
Activities and events can strengthen connections, Speakman said. "We have a wide range of programs in November and December, from happy holiday entertainment to lower key quieter events that are not quite so overwhelming." For a complete listing of activities go to ChathamCOA.com.
According to Harwich COA Director Emily Mitchell, "This is an area where the Council on Aging has a huge role to play."
The Harwich Council on Aging dining program is a great way to start, Mitchell said. "There is a good meal, usually lunch, every day and it's an entry point to other COA activities." Fitness, recreation and educational programs are available at the COA each day.
It can be challenging to reach everyone who can benefit from the services offered. Mitchell cited the work of the COA outreach staff, as well as first responders, in identifying and helping seniors at risk.
Mitchell also suggested personally reaching out to senior neighbors on a regular basis, whether by visiting or phone calls and messages. "Some seniors have no contact with anyone," she said. "Taking turns for a daily check-in can provide a very meaningful and authentic connection."
For those who no longer drive, Mitchell stressed that transportation services are provided for "anything we do here, and also at scheduled times for shopping trips, outings to the library and more." She encouraged residents to call a day before to get on the schedule for a ride. A complete listing of COA activities is available at www.harwich-ma.gov/council-on-aging.
Judi Wilson, director of the Orleans Council on Aging, is especially aware of how difficult this time may be for seniors. "A lot of people don't have the informal support of friends and family nearby," she said recently. "They may live alone and have also experienced a lot of loss in their lives, missing friends and loved ones who have died."
Wilson highlighted the many community and volunteer opportunities offered through the Orleans COA. "Volunteer opportunities at the COA, like luncheon servers, are not demanding in terms of time or skill, but do provide opportunities for socializing while volunteering." The benefits of volunteering are many, Wilson stressed, "both in making a difference and gaining a sense of belonging."
The COA is the front door to the aging network of services in the community, Wilson said. "We often get calls from adult children who live far away who are looking for caregivers and other support for their loved ones. We don't provide those services but we do have a network of resources. We point them in the right direction and they are very appreciative." Information on activities at the Orleans COA is available at www.town.orleans.ma.us/council-on-aging.