Before he died last year, my father-in-law, a widower, lived in an independent senior complex in Kimberly. One of Andy’s favorite Christmas memories from his time in Kimberly was the annual visit from Kimberly High School students.
Whenever my family visited him around Christmas, Andy would tell me about the young guests and how much he enjoyed listening to them sing Christmas carols for residents. Then they would stop by each apartment with a treat. Even though Andy had a lot of children and grandchildren who called and visited him frequently, it meant a lot to him that young strangers took the time to visit.
As we celebrate Advent and prepare for Christmas with family and close friends, Andy’s words come to mind. Do we remember our elder relatives and acquaintances who live alone at home or in an elder care facility? For some, Christmases past are all they have. There are no work parties, school plays or neighborhood gatherings on their Christmas calendar.
Loneliness can be one of the hardships of growing older, especially when a spouse dies, and it may be intensified during the holiday season. The Administration on Aging, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reports that 20 percent of men and 36 percent of women aged 65 and over live alone. These numbers increase with advanced age. For example, in 2015, only 32 percent of women aged 75 and over lived with a spouse and 46 percent lived alone.
Pope Francis, who turns 80 on Dec. 17, knows that loneliness can cast a dark shadow over seniors and he urges all of us to be a light of consolation in their lives.
“We must reawaken our collective sense of gratitude, appreciation and hospitality, helping the elderly know they are a living part of their communities,” the pope said during a general audience in 2015.
Pope Francis reminds us that we, too, will be in their shoes one day. “If we do not learn to treat the elderly well, we won’t be treated well either,” he said.
Jim Genrich, administrator of McCormick Assisted Living Center, a diocesan facility in Allouez, works closely with seniors. He told me that visits with senior residents always seem to mean more during the holidays. “In many ways, visits, however brief they may be, are much more appreciated than gifts at this time of the year,” he said.
The gift of being present to the lonely, often called a ministry of presence, not only puts a smile on someone’s face. It can restore the self-worth that some older adults may feel is diminishing during this transition in their life.
Even though the Jubilee Year of Mercy is behind us, the “door of mercy of our heart” remains open, Pope Francis says. Visiting people who are sick or who live alone is still a corporal work of mercy.
What the Holy Year accomplished was to “set all of us on a path to charity, which we are called to travel daily with fidelity and joy,” the pope said, adding that now is the time of mercy.
“It is the time of mercy because those who are weak and vulnerable, distant and alone, ought to feel the presence of brothers and sisters who can help them in their need,” Pope Francis wrote in his document concluding the Holy Year, “Misericordia et Miseria.”
If someone in your family, neighborhood or parish lives alone, make it a point to visit them this Christmas. If your Catholic school, parish religious education or youth group is looking for a community activity, contact a local nursing home like McCormick Assisted Living and schedule a visit with residents.
Just as it did with my late father-in-law Andy, a holiday visit can make a real impression on seniors — and put a big smile on their faces.