Welcome to the holidays, the “season to be jolly.”
However, for some, especially senior citizens who are widows or widowers, glad tidings are of neither comfort nor joy. In fact, the holidays can be especially challenging for those missing a loved one or isolated from family members. Several organizations in the Region are working to make their season brighter.
At Hartsfield Village in Munster, several programs cater to this need not only during the holidays but also throughout the year. According to recreation director Nanette Mata, a great deal of attention is given to residents who experience loss and loneliness. “It’s not only about death,” she said. “Many residents become attached to their friends in the retirement community, and when one of them transitions to long-term, memory or hospice care, they feel a sense of loss.”
During the holidays specifically, Hartsfield holds a Celebration of Life and Remembrance event. As each resident enters, he or she is given a rose. After a presentation, residents share their journey, a prayer is recited and everyone places the petals of their rose in a bowl. “The release of the rose petals is symbolic of releasing our loved ones and achieving inner peace,” Mata said.
The Hartsfield Caring and Sharing Group meets every month. Residents bring photos or mementos to share with the other members. “One lady brought a letter her husband wrote to her when he was in the service,” Mata said, tearing up. “It was very emotional for her and for the group.” She added that some people read poetry or letters they’ve written and compiled throughout their life. “The sharing starts conversations and aids in helping them express their feelings.
In addition, wellness coordinator Sue Hynek, who is also a lay minister, offers one-on-one prayer sessions, and Hartsfield facilitates spiritual, motivational and holistic medicine programs from outside sources.
Barbara Santay, a therapist with Franciscan Hammond Clinic in Munster and Crown Point, is a generalist in grief therapy. Her favorite quote is: “Grief never ends, but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith … it’s the price of love.” (The source is unknown.) She said grief changes with time; one goes from a place of tears to a place of smiling and reminiscing about their loved one.
When coping with the loss of their life partner, the first year is always hardest for widows and widowers, Santay said. “It is the year of many ‘firsts’, such as the first Christmas without them,” she said. “They dread facing the holidays alone for the first time.”
To help get through the holidays, Santay suggests identifying the times they would mind being alone the most and find something to fill that void. “Be with other people, cook and serve dinner, go to a museum, find a volunteer job,” she said. “It’s a way of honoring yourself and making your ‘alone time’ more fulfilling. It makes you value your own company and your feelings of self-worth.”
A group Santay recommends is The Wounded Healers. Though it meets year-round, each November the group sponsors a roundtable with grief counselors to help people find a way to process their grief and memorialize their loved ones. This nondenominational group was started by Pat Kish, who lost her own husband to tragedy. (For more information, visit woundedhealers-nwi.com.)
Santay noted that widowers have a particularly hard time, as they don’t have the same social support in place as women and don’t talk a lot about their feelings. “Studies on brain and neuropathways reveal that one needs a support system because health is impacted in many ways and loneliness can become depression,” she said. “A grieving person should accept others’ offers to help. They say it takes a village to raise a child; the same is true for older people and helping them process their grief.”
Dr. Beatrice Nelson-Brewer, a psychiatrist in the geriatric behavioral health unit at Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus in Gary, said that older people often have a hard time asking for help. Relatives or friends can offer transportation or help the senior take advantage of local services.
Being around family, friends or children during the holidays can keep seniors’ mind off of their losses. “If they don’t have grandchildren of their own, they can surround themselves with others’ grandchildren, as long as they can enjoy themselves,” Nelson-Brewer said.
She suggests doing something special for the holidays: go to a restaurant, get a massage, visit the mall or go to the movies. “From a clinical standpoint, the seasonality of depression adds to holiday loneliness due to less sunlight,” she noted. “It’s important for the elderly to get out of the house and get some vitamin D.”