December is such a busy time of the year that we often forget about the little things that can make a person’s holiday season brighter. We focus on decorating the house, buying gifts, travel, being with family, and we forget about those who are not so fortunate. Small gestures of kindness go a long way during the holiday season.
We all know an elder who is now a widow or widower, or a neighbor who has an illness or disability, people who are socially isolated due to death of a partner, loss of a child, or ‘old age’ that now prevents them from getting out. Loneliness is difficult to endure at any time of year, but during the winter holiday season, loneliness can be the cause of the onset of a serious depression and decline.
I met Mr. Hill when I was delivering books for our libraries homebound reader’s services. At 79 he lived alone in a senior housing apartment building and he told me that his only pleasure remaining was reading. His apartment was dark, littered with clothing and books, trash and cigarette cartons and ashtrays (Yes – there is a no-smoking policy at this complex!). The smell of smoke was difficult to endure so my visits had to be short but it was always difficult to get away from Mr. Hill’s non-stop talking. He was full of questions about the weather, the traffic, the changes in Fayetteville, authors, and complaints about his constantly rising rent. He knew the biography of every favorite author, all their books and plots. He came alive when talking about the stories, his likes and dislikes. “I can’t stand it when they get into writing about sex”, he said with disgust. “I like action! I want to read about the cattle on the range, the cowboys struggles, the settlement of the West”, he exclaimed as he told me of the many favorite authors of historical westerns.
I recently found two books of his favorite authors in a thrift store – $2 each for hardbacks! And I found two Dusty Richards novels of historical western fiction. I bought them, put his name on the jackets, and delivered them with a half loaf of an apple-pecan bread I had just made. I met a new Mr. Hill! You would think I had given him a month’s free rent! Yes, he had read those books but he was thrilled to own them, and anxious to read them. In his excitement he began reminiscing. His memories were painful. He had a good paying job after he left the Air Force in 1966, but his wife left him and took their children. After she remarried the children no longer visited, he had lost contact and not seen them in 35 years. As he sat alone in his apartment, the television focused on ‘holiday cheer’, all he could think of was memories of his young children’s Christmas when they delighted in opening their presents on Christmas morning. The reminiscence was both joyful and painful. Now alone, sitting each day in a dirty apartment with his books to take him away from painful life memories, it was difficult for Mr. Hill to continue to ignore his painful life history and his loneliness. I left him and our visit with a promise for the next week, a new book, a new adventure, and another homemade treat and personal visit. This commitment to a future pleasant visit is important.
There is a Mr. Hill in every apartment building, on every block of the lower income areas of any community.
Mary Jones lived on South West near 15th St. in Fayetteville. When I met Mary she was 92, living alone in her home of over 50 years, widowed, without children, and living on the Meals on Wheels delivered Monday through Friday. A neighbor occasionally brought groceries to give fresh foods, but Mary could no longer cook, clean, or care for her self-care properly. I met Mary when I managed a non-profit whose mission was to help homebound elders. Mary was like many elderly – she had money and assets, but could not allow herself to spend a penny on the care she needed. And she trusted No One! Through months of friendship and support, Mary accepted help in her home, gifts of good food and sharing, and she allowed caring helpers to love her. Mary’s life was changed through the efforts of those creating interventions for ‘homebound elders’.
Social isolation can be a killer. As isolation becomes an elder’s daily existence, fear and paranoia can become the enemy of the aging or disabled. Without socialization, contact with others, feedback and cognitive stimulation, the brain is no longer open to new stimulation, new input, new people or experiences. The fear builds on itself and the elder becomes more isolated, more fearful, and perhaps delusional.
In DECEMBER, 2017 – VISIT elders or disabled in their homes. Make a ‘friendly visit’, spend time, listen, show that you care about this person. Take a small gift, either homemade food or a gift of a candy or a jam, (make sure they are not diabetic!), fresh fruit (many elders never have fresh grapefruit, oranges, apples), fresh juice, or a card to tell them of your memories that you share with them (if they have good eyesight and can read).
Spend less than an hour. You will be rewarded. Go back. Listen. Learn. Become a friend.
Sara Cain-Bartlett, MSW, LCSW, C-ASWCM
CareSupport Services, PLLC – A Geriatric Care Manager and Consultant