When Senior Loneliness is More than Just the Holiday Blues

By Joanna Ignatiades, RN, Queens Resident, and Care Coordinator with the not-for-profit VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans

HEALTH– The holidays are a time of happiness and celebration for many of us. Families get together to exchange season’s greetings and ring in the New Year with generations of friends and family coming from far and wide.

For most, it’s a festive time. But, especially for older members of our community who don’t get out as much as they once did, or who may have recently lost a loved one, things may not feel cheery at all. 

As a health professional who works to help New Yorkers live safely and independently in their own homes as they age, I’ve seen firsthand how loneliness can trigger the Holiday Blues. In my role as a registered nurse and care coordinator for VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans, my roster often includes older patients with limited mobility and multiple chronic health conditions that keep them indoors when others are out shopping, celebrating and visiting with family.

Holiday rituals can be especially daunting for someone who finds herself alone after celebrating the holidays for decades with a beloved spouse who has recently died. It’s important to honor the past, but also to be open to new possibilities, and to take things one step at a time. Everyone handles loss differently, and if you know a neighbor or have a loved one who is alone at the holidays this year—a phone call to say hello could bring welcome, and unexpected joy.

Here are a few guidelines that we hope will help increase awareness of potential triggers for the holiday blues and offer simple strategies for inspiring good cheer—in yourself, or someone you love!

Helping Yourself Helps Others

Loneliness is more prevalent this time of year. Take your mind off your own troubles by helping others in need. If you can manage to squeeze it in, spend a few hours volunteering at a local soup kitchen, or donate a collection of canned goods or second-hand clothes or toys to a favorite charity. Even visiting residents at a nursing home or children’s hospital, or calling someone you know who is struggling can make a big difference in your outlook—and theirs. Develop an “Attitude of Gratitude” for the things that truly matter. Your gift of spending time with those who are shut in or hospitalized this holiday can be the best medicine for both you and the receiver.

Be Jolly, but in Moderation

There is nothing as enticing as a colorful row of holiday cookies and treats, but all that sugar and carbohydrates can zap your energy and then your spirits—especially if combined with too much alcohol. We suggest sticking to healthy eating patterns during the holidays, emphasizing lean meats, leafy vegetables, whole grains and fruit. Avoid driving after indulging and be aware of any medications that may be contraindicated with alcohol.

Holiday Traditions 

This is the season of tradition – whether it’s attending services, watching holiday classics, or spending time with family and loved ones. Homebound seniors may not be able to attend church or synagogue. A great way to combat this is to do your best to take advantage of technology; many services and holiday classics are now on TV or the internet. Select a few shows or movies and write down the times and channels to remind those that may have memory loss. If family lives far away, help shorten the distance by setting up Skype or other Internet tools so that your loved one can see and connect with relatives and grandchildren face to face. 

If what you are experiencing is more than a transient case of the blues and is associated with a persistent feeling of sadness over a long period of time as well as loss of interest in things that previously brought you joy, notify your primary care physician as soon as possible.

To learn more about health plans that help elder New Yorkers live more comfortably, safely and independently in their own homes, visit www.VNSNYCHOICE.org or call 1-855-AT CHOICE (1-855-282-4642).

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