Make their season bright

Visit a senior this Christmas

One of my father-in-law’s favorite Christmas memories was the annual visit from Kimberly High School students to his retirement complex in Kimberly.

Whenever my family visited him around Christmas, Andy, who died in 2015, would tell me about the young guests and how much he enjoyed listening to them sing Christmas carols for residents. They would also 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 coronavirus pandemic has only served to make matters worse for older adults who live alone.

The Administration for Community Living, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reported that about 28% (13.8 million) of all noninstitutionalized older persons in 2017 lived alone (9.3 million women, 4.5 million men). These numbers represent 34% of older women and 20% of older men, according to the April 2018 report on older adults. 

Pope Francis, who turns 85 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.

“Old age is not a disease, it is a privilege! Loneliness can be a disease, but with charity, closeness and spiritual comfort, we can heal it,” Pope Francis said during the first International Conference on the Pastoral Care of the Elderly in 2020.

Pope Francis reminds us that we, too, may 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 in 2015.

Several years ago, a former administrator of a Green Bay senior living facility told me that visits with senior residents always seem to mean more during the holidays. 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 diminishing during this transition in their life.

As Catholic Church teaching reminds us, visiting people who are sick, which includes the elderly who live alone, is one of the seven corporal works of mercy.

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 care facility like McCormick Assisted Living or St. Paul Elder Care in Kaukauna and schedule a visit with residents.

Just as it did for my late father-in-law, Andy, a holiday visit can make a real impression on seniors — and put big smiles on their faces.