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Make Room @ The Table Offers Ideas To Ease Holiday Loneliness and Isolation

The organization's holiday lists are filled with simple activities to enjoy time alone or make connections with people of all ages

By Julie Pfitzinger

Sing holiday songs with a friend or friends virtually via Zoom or over the speakerphone. Arrange to have a Zoom date — or an in-person meal — the day before the holiday or the weekend after with a friend, who'll be observing the holiday alone. Make your get-together a "holiday celebration."

Screenshare a movie or football game on the holiday via Zoom with someone who is alone … or view the football game or movie separately and text or talk about what you watched by phone afterward.

A group of older and younger people caroling at someone's doorstep. Next Avenue make room at the table, loneliness isolation
Credit: Getty

These are just a few of the many ideas compiled in holiday lists by Make Room @ The Table, a Milwaukee and Chicago-based affinity group, founded in 2020, which counts among its members health care professionals, social workers, community organizers, philanthropists and those who have worked in the aging space.

Make Room @ The Table belongs to the national Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness, participates in the international Togetherness Hub and is a partner on the Far From Alone website.

"In the past, when loneliness and isolation were talked about, the onus was always on the lonely person to get out and do things."

For the second year in a row, members of the group brainstormed a list of simple, fun and kind suggestions to help combat loneliness and isolation during the holiday season — with an understanding this is an issue prevalent throughout the year, and affecting not just older adults but younger people as well.

There are actually two lists; one is for people who will be spending the holidays alone and the other is for people who may be looking for ways to engage friends, neighbors and others seeking companionship. (Full versions of the lists are found at the end of this story.)

A Conversation on Loneliness and Isolation

Marcia Johnston, a founding member and convener of Make Room @ The Table, said she and other members of the group, numbering about a dozen, had all been talking about the issues of social isolation and loneliness in the aging space in their various capacities and that "it wasn't a new area, but the pandemic moved the topic to the front burner" in terms of awareness.

However, it was at a local symposium in June 2020 that she and future members of the group attended, with a focus on loneliness and isolation, which provoked something of an "aha moment."

"In the past, when loneliness and isolation was talked about, the onus was always on the lonely person to get out and do things, to not just stay in their house," Johnston explained. "But in the presentation we heard, not once did that come up. It was about how the community should support people in the community who are isolated and alone."

"Many of us were kind of blown away by that and wanted to get together to keep the conversation going," she continued.

In July 2020, Johnston, who served for more than 25 years as an adviser to the Harry G. and Charlotte H. Slater Family Foundation, which supports programs for older adults in the Greater Milwaukee area, gathered (virtually) a group of others interested in determining some next steps.

Participants included Karen Graham, manager of community relations at Rush Medical Center Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago; Lucas Livingston, a member of the steering committee of the Arts and Brain Health Coalition in Chicago and Ruth Ann Watkins, a member of the Village Chicago social network for people 50+ and board chair for the Retirement Research Foundation.

"Loneliness and isolation is a universal issue," said Watkins. "It's not just an issue facing older adults; intergenerational connections are so necessary."

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Accessibility of resources, and truly finding ways to bring everyone to the table, is a part of the issue that's important to Graham and one that was particularly magnified during the beginning of the pandemic.

"One of the things I was finding with communities of color was that many people living in senior buildings and nursing homes were not able to get out and their loved ones weren't able to see them," she said, adding that once the vaccine became available, many were challenged to find ways to sign up that didn't require computer access.

"The pandemic has just brought to the forefront so many issues, especially among members of marginalized communities."

And at her Chicago church, services pivoted online, but once it became clear that many members of the church community didn't have computer or internet access, a phone line was established so isolated individuals could call in and hear the services.

Livingston, former assistant director of Accessibility and Lifelong Learning at the Art Institute of Chicago working with volunteers to bring art programs to older adults in the community, agrees with Graham.

"Loneliness and isolation have always existed. The pandemic has just brought to the forefront so many issues, especially among members of marginalized communities," he said.

How the Holiday Lists Were Created

One of the first projects of Make Room @ The Table was to create holiday lists with suggestions on how to make the holidays brighter and more inclusive for everyone. Johnston solicited input and suggestions from not only members of the affinity group, but several others as well. Last year, the list focused solely on Thanksgiving; this year, it includes Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and New Year's Eve.

"We had a wide range of intergenerational input — all of the ideas were really good," said Johnston, who compiled the lists for those celebrating alone and those looking for ideas on ways to engage with others.

The lists are distributed via Make Room @ The Table's Facebook page and sent to more than two dozen organizations in the Chicago area that serve older adults as well as to the group's partner organizations across the country.

Feedback on last year's lists was very positive.

"Many of the organizations who received a copy really took it to heart," said Johnston. "They were holding virtual open houses and drop-ins, inviting community members to participate. We heard from them that the lists were very helpful and very impactful."

Raising awareness about how loneliness and isolation impacts people of all ages is essential, according to Graham, who would like to see more research on the topic by the health care community, as well as the development of interventions.

Watkins agrees: "There is a need for all of us to make human connections, and five or ten years down the road, I'd like that idea to be accepted and valued, so that people wouldn't even have to give thought to reaching out to others — they would just do it."

The suggestions on these holiday lists, provided courtesy of Make Room @ The Table, seem like a good place to start:

22 Tips for Spending the Holidays on Your Own

  1. Invite someone you know will also be alone to share a holiday meal via Zoom or in person. Talk about the dishes you’ve made for each course and why you included them on your menu.
  2. Bake some goodies to share with friends during the holidays. Experiment with new recipes. If they are a success — or a spectacular failure — display them on social media.
  3. Settle back in your favorite chair and become absorbed in a book you’ve been wanting to read.
  4. Stream a film. Fix a snack that carries out the theme of the movie — an ice cream soda if watching Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney or some warm croissants if catching a French film with subtitles.
  5. Dive into a project — like cleaning your closets — that you’ve been meaning to do but haven’t had time to tackle.
  6. Go through photo albums, diaries and calendars and relive holidays past when you celebrated with friends and family and were not alone.
  7. Take a walk by yourself or go for a ride. Or ask a friend or neighbor to join you on a stroll, staying socially distant and masked, if that seems prudent.
  8. Write a note to people you are thankful are in your life and mail it so your greeting arrives on the holiday. Or reach out to them by phone, e-mail or text and wish them a “lovely day.”
  9. Sign up to participate in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count that takes place from December 14, 2021 to January 5, 2022. The bird count is free, but you need to register in advance.
  10. Begin a journal or add to one you’ve already begun. Consider starting work on a memoir. Emphasize gratitude and the things in your life for which you are thankful.
  11. Attend a religious service online or in person.
  12. Get tickets to a virtual or in-person play, musical, jazz performance, dance recital or concert during the holidays.
  13. Offer to take care of a pet for a friend or neighbor who will be spending the holidays out of town. If feasible, volunteer at an animal shelter on the holiday.
  14. Plan a micro “adventure” — take a bus or cab or drive to a different neighborhood and view the holiday decorations outside the homes and in the stores. Sample hot chocolate and a pastry — or a holiday treat — in a local café you’ve never been to before.
  15. Check to see whether Mather Telephone Topics or Well Connected or other learning or social programs designed for older people are available via Zoom — either by phone or online — on the holidays.
  16. Write a story… create a poem… or make up a song. Begin knitting a sweater or scarf. Engage in a craft to make special presents for those on your gift list.
  17. Invite friends and neighbors to your home — or to Zoom — early on New Year’s Eve. Share champagne or wine and snacks to launch a New Year’s celebration. If you’re going to be home alone at midnight, arrange to call a friend or family member who is also alone as the clock strikes 12 to usher in the new year.
  18. Offer to fill in for a volunteer, so that person can celebrate with family. If it’s feasible to volunteer in person, you can do so. If not, see if there is a way you can volunteer online or by phone.
  19. If you are spending the holiday on your own as the caregiver for an older loved one who is physically challenged or cognitively impaired, try brightening up your festivities by singing familiar seasonal songs, listening to holiday music together or collaborating on simple projects like stringing popcorn garlands, decorating wreaths or wrapping presents.
  20. Contact a local university alumni relations office or community liaison department and ask if there are foreign students or faculty members who won’t be traveling to their home country for the holidays. You could offer to host an informal get together with them, such as a virtual or in- person caroling party on Christmas Eve or a Christmas or New Year’s Day virtual — or real life — open house.
  21. Plan ahead to cook a special holiday dish or entire meal for yourself. Or place an order for a holiday banquet from a restaurant or grocery store. Set the table with your favorite china and glassware. Make a centerpiece of brightly colored gourds, a Christmas poinsettia or Kwanzaa Kinara with Mishumaa Saba candles. Dress in your holiday best.
  22. Ignore the holiday and view it as just another day. Stick to your usual routine, take something out of the freezer and savor the gift of quiet time alone.

14 Tips for Reaching Out to Those You Know Will Be Alone

  1. Call a friend or family member who will be alone on the holiday. Perhaps you can coordinate with others who know the person to space out calls throughout the day.
  2. E-mail someone who’s alone on a holiday. Send a video greeting from you and, if appropriate, members of your family.
  3. Arrange an in-person or virtual caroling party on Christmas Eve that includes friends and family members who will be alone.
  4. Enlist young folks to become pen pals, sending cards and letters — or poems, drawings, and stories — to older people who are alone on the holiday.
  5. Send a beautiful, animated e-card to be delivered on the holiday to a person alone. Have the message on the card reflect your gratitude that the person is in your life.
  6. Make time on the holiday to set up a Zoom date with someone who is alone. If feasible, include family members or mutual friends. During the virtual visit, you could light the candles together in a Kwanzaa Kinara or trim Christmas trees.
  7. Set aside a portion of your holiday dinner for a friend who is observing the holiday alone and deliver it to their door.
  8. Send or lend a book you enjoyed or found meaningful to a friend, who will be alone on the holiday and then plan to discuss it with the person by phone or Zoom on the holiday or shortly thereafter.
  9. Cook with friends who will be alone. Whip up innovative holiday delicacies, concoct tempting Yule logs or elaborately decorated Christmas cookies. Then sample some of your culinary creations together and comment on how they turned out.
  10. Write “letters of gratitude” to friends you know will be alone. Mail them so they will arrive the day before the holiday, but write “Do Not Open Until” — whatever holiday it is — on the envelopes.
  11. Invite a friend or neighbor who is alone to go for a walk — masked and socially distanced, if prudent — on the holiday.
  12. If someone you know lives alone but has holiday plans, check in at the end of the day to make sure those plans came to pass. If the plans fell through, the person will be disappointed and lonely and will be pleased to have the human contact. If the holiday get-together took place as scheduled, the person will be delighted to have the chance to share details with a friend.
  13. See if your senior center, house of worship or older adult social organization can arrange a virtual dinner or open house on the holiday to provide social connectivity for folks who’ll be by themselves.
  14. Make room at your table virtually…or in real life. Add a person who is alone to your guest list to dine with you and your family on the holiday. If it’s too much of a hassle to include someone who’s alone for an entire holiday meal, ask them to share dessert with you and your other guests. Or invite someone who is alone to dine with your family the night after the holiday and join you in a traditional holiday feast of leftovers.
Photograph of Julie Pfitzinger
Julie Pfitzinger is the editor for Next Avenue’s lifestyle coverage across the Living and Technology channels. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email at [email protected] Read More
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