Christmas and the elderly

It’s not easy for those who live alone.

Within days the special music of Christmas will dominate the airwaves.

It’s also the season when thoughts of togetherness, gifts around the tree and kind words hailing Christ’s birth, will help to create an atmosphere that underscores core Christian values of sharing, love, peace and harmony.

But for thousands of people across Barbados and hundreds of millions around the world who are over the age of 70 years old, it will be a period of loneliness.

“Nurse, I am lonely,” an elderly woman was overheard recently at one of the old folks homes in Christ Church.

“I am not looking forward to Christmas Day because I wouldn’t see any relatives.”

Far too many elderly Barbadians and others around the world are just like the resident of that home.

Figures tell much of the story.

With 47,000 people in Barbados now over the age of 60 years, 8,000 of them have celebrated their 80th birthday, Barbados’ population, say demographers, is ageing more quickly than the elderly in rich nations.

By 2050, 89,000 persons on the island would have celebrated their 60th birthday, 23,000 of them in their 80s. Women who are either divorced or widowed account for the vast majority.

Why the loneliness at Christmas?

Family breakdowns, deaths of spouses and other close relatives, emigration and younger relatives getting on with their lives, often ignoring grandparents, are factors fueling what’s really an epidemic of loneliness among retirees who live alone.

While there aren’t specific figures for Barbados, surveys in the United Kingdom estimate some 250,000 people over 75 years will spend Christmas day alone, even though a majority of them have children.

In a BBC broadcast, Pauline, a pensioner from Oxfordshire, told listeners that last Christmas left her “tearful, upset, angry and extremely lonely … It’s an emptiness. It’s a sadness.”

How come?

“Last Christmas, I spent it entirely on my own, with no presents, no phone calls, no visits, nothing,” she replied.

A Barbadian who works at a nursing home in Canada and who was recently home for a few weeks, said she understands Pauline’s complaint.

“We don’t have a lot of people visiting the nursing home on Christmas Day. Of the 200 residents only about 10 per cent have visitors on Christmas Day.

“It’s an extremely difficult period for people who live alone and far too often we don’t pay sufficient attention to them,” said the 65 year old woman who lives alone in a Toronto suburb and who may soon retire.

In the United States, the number runs into the tens of millions.

In a recent published article Janet Morrison, Chief Executive of the British charity, Independent Age, said: “Sadly, the figures suggest being alone, and being alone on Christmas Day, is more prevalent among older people than many of us would believe or should be prepared to accept.”

The problem has become so serious that researchers rate loneliness as a health risk that’s higher than lifelong smoking and obesity.

Some even go so far as to suggest that leaving the elderly alone during the Christmas time is a perverse form of “granny dumping”, a callous disregard that has shown its ugly head at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

That brings us back to Pauline.

“I have got a daughter I haven’t seen in 12 years,” she told the BBC. “They think I am totally self-sufficient and they don’t have to bother me, and that can go on for weeks. I think between my children and my (late) husband, I feel as though my heart has been broken.”

Psychologists and those who care for the elderly believe a cure can be found in several areas.

First with family members who need to be more sensitive to the needs of their elderly relatives.

A visit or a telephone call at least twice a week would be a good beginning. Presents on Christmas Day and putting up Christmas decorations in the home should be next. Loneliness can also be fought, experts suggest, with involvement in community affairs or even cultivating feelings of happiness which then brush aside unhappiness.

(Submitted by the Barbados Association of Retired Persons).

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