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
percent 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 independent 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of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by the veneration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 It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.”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 is that our exultation of personal autonomy over
family and community fails to acknowledge 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 promoting (rather than
demoting) family and practicing what our Holy Father asked 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 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.
Sr. Constance Veit is director of communications for the
Little Sisters of the Poor.