In the past few weeks I’ve been asked to speak about loneliness in the elderly on numerous occasions. I was even quoted in a recent article by Catholic journalist Mary Rezac entitled Our Elders Are Lonely — Do We Care? As we look forward to Christmas let’s hope we can all say, “Of course we do!”
The issue of loneliness in the elderly may not be as clear-cut as it seems. While one recent study reported that nearly half of people over 60 said they feel lonely on “a regular basis,” another asserted that only 6% of American seniors said they “often” feel this way. Contradictory statistics aside, in our country roughly one third of those over 65 and half of those over 85 live alone.
Sociologists see this trend as a sign of social progress. Improved health care, increased wealth and the emergence of retirement as a relatively long stage of life, they say, have created more choices for seniors and enabled them to live independently of their adult children. This situation, often referred to as “intimacy at a distance,” respects the life choices and autonomy of both older persons and their adult children, fostering more positive and supportive emotional bonds for all.
In his book, Being Mortal, surgeon and author Atul Gawande wrote, “The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated.… The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. It demoted the family. It gave people — the young and the old — a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by the veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.”
The problem with this model is that our exaltation of personal autonomy over family and community fails to acknowledge the reality that sooner or later, each of us will need the help of others to survive and enjoy a meaningful life. This brings us to Christmas. What is Christmas without family and community? And yet this season can also be a time of stress for those who are estranged from their loved ones, those who cannot afford to fulfill their children’s wishes, those whose holiday joys are but a distant memory, and those who find themselves alone in this world.
Christmas is the perfect time to begin practicing what our Holy Father has asked of us in his apostolic letter for the closing of the Year of Mercy, Misericordia et Miseria. As we gather in our families, social circles and faith communities — even at our office parties — may we look around to see who is standing on the periphery, who is at risk of being excluded from the joys of this season. Inspired by mercy, let us offer a word of consolation and begin restoring joy and dignity to those who feel left out. God’s mercy, Pope Francis suggested, finds expression in the closeness, affection and support that we offer our brothers and sisters, and in the strength of family. “The drying of tears is one way to break the vicious circle of solitude in which we often find ourselves trapped,” he wrote.
Mercy leads us to see each person as unique. “We have to remember each of us carries the richness and the burdens of our personal history;” Pope Francis wrote; “this is what makes us different from everyone else. Our life, with its joys and sorrows, is something unique and unrepeatable that takes place under the merciful gaze of God.”
If you are young you can share God’s mercy this Christmas by patiently listening to your grandparents’ stories, or offering them a hand in a way that says, “You are important to me.” If you are a grandparent, look around to see which one of your children or grandchildren is waiting for your affirmation or your words of wisdom. Even if you are infirm or in need and feel that you have nothing to give, you can still offer your smile, your thanks or a word of kindness to those who help you. Our Holy Father reminds us that God never tires of welcoming and accompanying us, despite our sins and frailties. Let our loving presence be the gift we give others this Christmas!