For seniors, help and connections during the holiday season are only a phone call away.
Some people cannot wait for the holiday season to begin. They start collecting their Thanksgiving recipes in September. Families decorate the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, dancing along to A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. You might be a member of one of those families. We have that friend who we count on to throw the big New Year’s Eve party, and some of us look forward to a traditional family lunch on New Year’s Day. A few special occasions make us feel excited thinking about all we have to look forward to.
While some of us see the holiday season as a time of celebration, gratitude, and togetherness, there are those of among us who experience stressful emotions as they flip their calendars through November, December, and January.
Families sometimes experience financial stress and pressure to deliver the perfect holiday, while others hold memories of trauma or loss linked to the winter months. This sense of loss deeply affects many older adults. The death of loved ones, decline in physical health and mobility, and loss of financial security can prevent older adults from participating in traditions that they used to enjoy. This leads to depression and feelings of isolation at a time when others feel joyful and connected.
“During the holidays, loss of loved ones is a prominent theme,” explains SOWN social worker Debby Davis, LCSW. She adds that the risk of COVID-19 for older adults can amplify distressing feelings around the holiday season. For seniors whose family members are not vaccinated, making difficult choices regarding invitations to holiday gatherings induces more stress.
Although COVID-19 safety precautions led many people to restrict face-to-face social interactions, research collected in a pre-pandemic world showed concerning data regarding social isolation. In 2018, the American Psychological Association reported that more than 42 million Americans identify as lonely, prompting some health experts to categorize social isolation as a public health crisis.
Older adults are particularly impacted by loneliness. In 2019, AARP reported data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging showing that among adults age 50 – 80, 1 in 3 said that they lack regular companionship, and 1 in 4 said that they felt isolated from other people at least some of the time. Research shows that social isolation results in depression, anxiety, and other health consequences. It has been linked to cognitive decline, and HRSA reports that social isolation causes as much damage to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Ms. Davis puts is succinctly: “No one outgrows the need for social connections. It gets harder as we get older.” Women may face additional stressors since statistically they live longer than men and have lower income.
Making Connections, Building Bonds
Offering an antidote to social isolation, SOWN’s teletherapy groups for homebound women fosters social connections and positive self-worth. Each week, SOWN’s clinicians connect older women who cannot easily leave their homes for group counseling and support sessions. Participants share concerns, joys, sorrows, strategies, and solutions for the situations they face. Group discussions include topics such as trauma and loss, building resilience when making hard decisions, and coping with dependence as we age.
In order to make participation as inclusive and accessible as possible, sessions are always held over the telephone, eliminating the need for internet access or a smart phone. Women are eligible to participate through the Home and Community Based Services aging waiver. (available to all Pennsylvanians over age 60). Services are free and authorized by their Community Health Choices insurance provider.
Over the years, Ms. Davis has been struck by the benefits a weekly telephone call holds. Although the teletherapy group participants have never met in person or seen each other’s faces, participants share an undeniable bond. “The relationships among group members are so strong that they extend outside group hours–they call each other during the week.”
When asked how it feels to talk on the phone with people she’s never met in person, group participant Mable Menefee shares, “We can’t see each other’s faces, but we can hear each other’s voice. You still know we’re smiling at you.” Participant Denise Hood adds, “Some people are wearing a façade in their voice. They [other group members] know something is wrong in your voice and they call you on it.”
For longtime participant Mary Avant, the teletherapy group allows her to share her experiences with others, lending empathy to the group. Ms. Avant says, “I’ve lived quite a life. I lived through being segregated against, to not being able to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and how I want to do it.” She also brings laughter to group dynamics, noting casually, “I was a stand-up comedian in a blind group I used to belong to,” and sometimes closes the session with a joke.
Ms. Avant worked as a career librarian and adapted to gradual, total vision loss. While Ms. Avant belonged to many groups in the visually impaired community, her relationship with the SOWN’s teletherapy group remains special. “Just to listening to you ladies, it wakes me up and gives me joy,” Ms. Avant tells her fellow group members. She explains that she finds joy in the process of talking through situations together, pointing out that “Not every situation that you go through is a problem.”
In the midst of America’s loneliness crisis, Ms. Menefee finds herself securely connected with the other women in her group. “We are not in this world alone,” she says. “I feel that this group is a blessing and a help. We’re all going through something in life. If we can share how we come out of it with laughter and tears and grief, we can overcome it.”
Before joining her SOWN group, Ms. Hood struggled with her mental health and found herself choosing isolation. She gave up singing, which she used to love. Ms. Hood explained that other mental health professionals made her feel blamed and judged when she sought help. When she was referred to the teletherapy group, her depression and past experiences made her feel reluctant. She remembers, “I didn’t want to at first. I hated the group. I didn’t want to hear anyone’s voice, but I realized I hated myself.”
Ms. Hood credits her change of heart to the facilitator’s gentle, persistent invitation to join week after week. “It’s been like joining a family,” she reflects. “People know you’re going through something and they accept you anyway. No one judges you for it.” After some time with the group, Ms. Hood felt a change within herself. “I was able to sing again, and help other people,” says Ms. Hood.
For the women in SOWN’s teletherapy groups, one weekly phone call brings together multiple voices to share the full scope of life’s emotions. There is no need to wait for a special occasion to celebrate or reflect. Crisis averted.
If you want to learn more about eligibility and participation in SOWN’s Homebound Teletherapy Groups, contact Debby Davis, LCSW at 215-487-3000, ext 13 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT SOWN The Supportive Older Womens Network serves grandparent-headed families, caregivers for loved ones, and vulnerable older adults in the Greater Philadelphia region. A grassroots news partner with WHYY/N.I.C.E.
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This column was written by Lori Latimer, SOWN’s Director of Programs. Read last month’s column here.