How to Be Less Lonely This Holiday Season
These holidays, in the wake of the social trauma of the pandemic, may be challenging. It's more important than ever for people who are alone to find ways to connect with others.
The holiday season of 2020 isn't exactly what anyone would call a distant memory — it was a sad and traumatic year, where countless families spent the holidays apart, separating themselves from loved ones (especially those who were older) to keep them safe from COVID-19. And well into 2021, many mourned losses of beloved friends and family members, as the pandemic's grip continued, even if it was to a somewhat lesser extent.
So here we are in 2022. What will this holiday season feel like, especially for those still reeling from those losses, or for people who are isolated by circumstance or choice?
Dr. Jeremy Nobel is a 2020 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the founder and president of The Foundation for Art & Healing, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting creative arts as a means to improve personal and public health.
As Nobel contemplates the holiday season in general, and this year in particular, he believes the coming weeks could prove to be challenging, especially for those who are alone.
"We're coming off two and a half years of a social trauma where we not only had prolonged uncertainty, which in and of itself is very stressful, but a lot of people experienced a sense of loss they are still trying to make sense of."
"What I think is most stressful about the holidays is that they get a lot of attention in the media and in our culture. The typical story is that you're together with family and friends; there is image after image that is celebratory and fantastic, unless you feel that somehow you're alienated from that," Nobel says. "The images represent some unachievable possibility of connection that you don't have access to."
According to Nobel, these feelings of alienation can trigger a lack of self-esteem, and a sense of shame or guilt, all which is compounded into disinterest in even trying to be social.
The Risk for Loneliness Increases
"During a typical holiday season, people who are already at risk for loneliness and isolation are at increased risk — people who are marginalized because of illness, a disability, race, class … the list is long," he explains.
There are additional factors at play this year, Nobel says. "We're coming off two and a half years of a social trauma where we not only had prolonged uncertainty, which in and of itself is very stressful, but a lot of people experienced a sense of loss they are still trying to make sense of."
Others living with a different kind of uncertainty are people suffering from long COVID, projected to be in the tens of millions, says Nobel. "What they are losing is a sense of being healthy and well, and facing a deep uncertainty about the future."
The one million deaths in the United States had profound impact. "There are estimates that for every person who died of COVID, there are eight people grieving that person, which is probably an underestimate," he says. "And it was a disordered grieving process — many people, either in their own lives, or in the media, saw how loved ones frequently had to say goodbye via FaceTime, if they could connect at all."
"What if we think about loneliness not as a negative calamity in our life, but just as a signal to connect?"
The profound nature of that experience has left many collectively grieving a certain loss of normalcy, of ritual and routine. Add this to the economic climate, with many older adults on fixed incomes, political polarization, an increase in violence and other disruptive activities, and Nobel says "it's a very stressful time."
The takeaway is that it's more important than ever for people to seek others out and connect with family members, friends and neighbors. Including people who are isolated, even through simple gestures, affords them the opportunity to feel less lonely.
Nobel is in favor of "bringing holiday loneliness out of the closet," he says. "Let's talk about it. That's a way to normalize it. We're all lonely at one point or another. What if we think about loneliness not as a negative calamity in our life, but just as a signal to connect?"
Simple Ways to Connect
Here are a few ideas:
"Meals are so important. While there is a great recognition to bring a meal to an isolated older adult, there is a tendency to drop it off at the door," Nobel says. "There's a different kind of generosity if you're willing to stay and have conversation while you're eating the casserole you brought."
Invite people out for walks, being mindful of limitations they might have. "Be particularly attentive to people living in cold-weather climates — offer to shovel snow," Nobel says. "As people age, they can lose some logistical management capabilities, in addition to the physical strength they need for shoveling."
Another simple way to engage in conversation is around the arts; the Foundation for Art & Healing sponsors an UnLonely Film Festival in June each year, and for the holiday season, they've curated a collection of short films.
"There's a different kind of generosity if you're willing to stay and have conversation while you're eating the casserole you brought."
"Most everybody has streaming access of some kind," says Nobel. "Bring over a plate of cookies and suggest viewing a few films together. Films invite conversation. It doesn't have to be a deep support group conversation — it can just be, 'What did you find interesting in this film?' or 'Did it remind you of anything?' From there, you're off to the races."
The Persistence of Grief
Nobel recognizes that the social momentum of "let's just get on with life," relative to the pandemic might strongly collide with the grief and uncertainty that many are still experiencing.
"I think that's a mistake. We integrate grief into our experiences — we don't just package it and set it aside," he says. "I think that's one of the reasons this holiday season will be stressful. People are going to have to dig into some of these painful, unresolved stories of the past two years."
Build a Relationship with Yourself
Nobel says that not only should people be open about admitting their loneliness at times, but they should take the opportunity to build a relationship with themselves.
"Go through the family photo album on your own and remember the meaningful stories," he says. "If you like to write, do some open-ended journaling about those stories. Connect with yourself through meditation, spend time outdoors, and in that, you can find a sense of wholeness and completeness. This can reduce your need for connection to other people."
Next Avenue Readers Share Their Plans
In a recent newsletter, we asked Next Avenue readers to tell us how they celebrate the holidays, especially if they are solo agers. Lorelei Taylor shared just the kind of strategy that Nobel suggests:
"I am a solo ager, but one who has family far away in another state. Typically, I spend Thanksgiving alone. It's just another day to me. That said, I will go to the little local grocery that sells a small, cooked turkey breast and then make small amounts of "fixings" and eat it while watching my small collection of favorite holiday films over the 4-day Thanksgiving weekend. I find solace and quiet joy spending these days on my own terms, at my own pace, and with no expectations from anyone for me to do anything."
Others told us of their plans to gather with friends for meals during the holiday season.
Bringing people around the table at the holidays is a long-standing tradition for Next Avenue reader Tony Erickson. He is a single retired male and bringing people around the table at the holidays is a tradition started by his parents that he's happy to continue.
Erickson hosted five of his good friends who he says would otherwise be home alone at holiday time and he makes it a special occasion.
"My parents always had a big table of family and friends that also would have been by themselves on the major holidays and I try to continue that tradition. We are all now parentless and, in some cases, spouseless and enjoy each other's company, " Erickson says. "I pull out my mother's china and silver and think about my parents and all of the wonderful holidays that I shared with them and now (these gatherings) are creating new memories for my friends."
Jill Grundfest and six of her friends have been spending the Thanksgiving holiday together for twenty years, and they hope to continue "for many years to come," she says.
"Six of my women friends and I celebrate Thanksgiving at one of our houses — she is willing to clean and cook! She does the main dish, and we all contribute side dishes and dessert," Grundfest says. "None of us are married, none of us have children, and all of us are now over 63."
Sheila L. brings flexibility into her holiday celebrations. "I have lived away from family since I started working (in the 70s) and have adapted my plans every year to invitations to friends' homes, out to dinner, to going away, to hosting a group as well, even cook for ourselves. Never know from year to year!"
Editor’s note: The Foundation for Art & Healing has a holiday campaign called "Make the Holidays UnLonely" which offers a host of creative ideas, in addition to links to the short films mentioned above. They will also be hosting a free webinar on Tuesday, December 6 from 1- 2 p.m. ET called "Sharing Our Gifts." More information is available on the website.