My mother-in-law lives by herself. She’s in her late 70’s. Her home is immaculate. She is immaculate. She has two cats. We live in Sydney. She lives in London. That’s just the start of a story that many families are challenged by at Christmas.
Not only do we live on opposite sides of the world, my husband is now her only child as her daughter died a number of years ago. Oddly enough, my mother-in-laws name is Joy. If only I could say that her life matched her name. But I can’t.
Unfortunately Joy is estranged from her brother and most of the rest of her extended family, tends towards agoraphobia and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Despite our numerous offers to come and collect her, and fly with us back to Australia for Christmas or a short holiday, Joy won’t get on a plane. Her upstairs neighbour has become increasingly unpleasant and nasty and Joy has become progressively isolated from her other neighbours. This year our Christmas is with my family in Perth.
We’re not the only ones with a story such as this. There are many others. Some older people won’t have family to retell their story because they’ve become disconnected, forgotten, rejected or disowned, or no longer have any other living relatives.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 Census found that 24.3% of people live alone. For people aged 75-84 years old, that figure rose to 29.7 per cent and for those aged over 85, it was more than a third (35.2 per cent) with older women (32 per cent) much more likely to live alone than older men (17 per cent). However, living alone is not necessarily a measure of loneliness. For some its a choice. For others it’s a position they find themselves in through circumstance but manage to connect with other people regularly enough that loneliness is not a concern.
A report by Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) provides a comprehensive overview of loneliness and social isolation. It’s complex. Whilst one survey found that loneliness and social isolation top the list of concerns for older people living at home, the good news is that the majority of Australians 65+ are not lonely. For those that are lonely, the solutions require significant community and local council support in the form of community programs and volunteers.
According to Age UK, more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. Recognising the importance of tackling this issue, in 2011 the UK commenced a comprehensive campaign to combat loneliness based on the British Equality and Human Rights Commission report identifying loneliness as an important issue for many reasons including its impact on depression and dementia.
A report on Channel 4 in the UK interviewed two people who battle loneliness daily. Margaret Nickless who is 91-years-old says in the interview: “If you’ve never been lonely, you don’t realise what it is like”. Roy Croucher was also interviewed and he explained how it felt to be lonely: “It feels as though you’ve been dumped in the deep end and there’s no one there to rescue you.”
For those of us separated from family we can feel helpless. We always call Joy a few times on Christmas day, and send photos, a photo book, or a DVD of the children so that she has something to look through and/or watch. This year we’re hoping her previous upstairs neighbour might visit. The reality is, her Christmas will primarily be lonely and we can only hope that our few gifts and the Queens message provide enough colour for there to be moments of joy.
What gift can you give?
If you know of or have seen an older person in your community who appears to be lonely and isolated from family, friends and the broader community you could give:
- An invitation to join you for your Christmas lunch/dinner.
- A simple gift that they can open on Christmas day.
- A Christmas hamper filled with homemade goodies that they can enjoy on the day to make their own special Christmas lunch.
- A phone call.
- A visit on Christmas Day.
And, if you’d like to consider something really different, assuming you met with the right older person with energy, you could end up at nightclubs and partying the night away, as this parody shows.
However you choose to spend Christmas Day, I hope your day is filled with joy, laughter, and love. And, if you know someone who’s lonely, I hope you spend just a moment connecting with them and bringing a little light and joy into their day.
If you think your Christmas Day is going to be lonely I encourage you to connect with others via local community organisations. It’s not too late and they’d love to see you. Or, you could try calling a long lost friend. Churches are beautifully decorated and services are always special on Christmas Day so why not go along? It’s a great way to be with some people for at least some of your day.
Whatever you do this year …
Have a Merry Christmas.