Happy Holidays Not So Happy for Everyone

By Natasha Josefowitz, PhD

Ah, the holidays! The smell of pine needles, presents under the tree, singing carols, lighting the menorah, children home from college filling the house with activity and joy … Maybe not—perhaps these are just memories. The reality for too many of our aging population is being alone, with spouses and friends long gone and children and grandchildren living far away. 

Holidays and anniversaries can be especially painful because these are the occasions for family gatherings. For people without families, their absence is felt even more strongly during such times. My ninety-six-year-old mother used to complain that all her friends had died and she had no one to even share memories with.

So if you are alone this holiday season, think of a friend—or two or three—equally alone and invite them to meet you at a restaurant or your house. You don't even have to cook; you can have food delivered. Another option is to write cards to people who may not be expecting them; they may be surprised and would appreciate it. Even a gift costing a few dollars could be the only one they receive.

Soup kitchens and shelters, churches and synagogues need volunteers to serve holiday meals. Here at the White Sands La Jolla retirement community, we host small children from the St. Vincent de Paul Society with a Santa Claus and gifts for all. Witnessing the children opening their presents is a real joy. Numerous other places may need volunteers, such as the Polinsky Children's Center, the San Diego Center for Children, Father Joe's Villages, or League House in La Jolla, among others.   Volunteering can fill a void. You will find yourself in a community of like-minded people who share the pleasure of making a difference in someone else's life. Being of service to others will benefit you as well.

If you are so lucky as to have friends and family celebrating the holidays together, make it even more meaningful by having each person recall a happy event of the past year. If the relationship and setting permit, ask everyone to mention one thing they regret or one wish for the coming year. Another option is to share what we are grateful for, which is a good practice for everyone to participate in. Sharing hopes and fears strengthens the bonds between people. Adults' willingness to talk about feelings is important for children to witness and, in this way, learn about human frailties and resiliencies.

I have always sent gingerbread houses I purchase from catalogs to all the small children of family and friends. My niece wrote that she remembered getting the gingerbread house as a little girl; now her daughter is nibbling at hers. I anticipate continuing this tradition for another generation.

A note to all of the young families reading this: Think of an elderly person who may not even be a relative or close friend, just someone you know and suspect may be alone. Invite them to your gathering; assign them the role of surrogate grandparent, and ask them to tell a story about their childhood holidays. You may start a wonderful tradition.

At ninety years young, Dr. Natasha Josefowitz has spent her life educating herself and others. She calls herself a late bloomer, having earned her master's degree at age forty and her doctorate at age fifty. She was on the faculty of the business school at the University of New Hampshire and at San Diego State University. She is a noted columnist and the author. Learn more here.