Expert: How to take care of senior citizens at Christmas

Not everyone is looking forward to Christmas.It can be a difficult time for people who are or who feel lonely.  Many elderly people are at risk. Some of them live in single-person households.  What is more, some have very limited contact with family, relatives and sometimes other people altogether. Pandemic times may exacerbate these problems for several reasons. 

Still in the shadow of the pandemic  

First of all, people may be less inclined to visit each other directly, especially if long train or bus journeys are involved. Admittedly, this year, both formal restrictions and habits have relaxed considerably from what we remember from a year ago, when the vaccination programme was just about to start. Nevertheless, there are still some risks and the anxiety that can accompany them. Some older people or their families may wish to limit direct contact, not wishing to provoke the risk of infection. We are still weeks away from Christmas, but at the moment the level of infections, hospitalisations and deaths is on an upward wave. There is still a proportion of older people who are unvaccinated (although this proportion is lower than for younger generations), and for the elderly, the sick and those with limited immunity, even when vaccinated, the health risks of infection can be great (although obviously less than for unvaccinated people of the same age).  Unsurprisingly, some older people can become self-isolated and live in a state of constant anxiety, which severely impairs their quality of life. The loneliness and consequences of coronavirus-induced confinement and isolation have also affected many residents of care facilities, who have been deprived of external visits and contact with the outside world for months.

Secondly, due to epidemiological reasons as well, there may be less scope for various local and non-governmental initiatives to compensate older and lonely people for the lack of company at Christmas. At the moment of writing, it is difficult to say what the formal and actual limits will be for initiatives such as Christmas Eve for lonely and poor people on the eve of Christmas (although even in earlier years, when such events could take place freely, some older people, for various reasons, did not find themselves in this noble formula and did not use it anyway). The information so far, however, indicates that for social and charitable organisations the last time was very difficult. This has been shown, for example, by the Noble Parcel report “on indifference”. It shows that in 2020 fewer Poles than the year before allocated financial resources to charitable causes, were less involved in volunteering or various social activities. Some social organisations suspended their regular activities or reduced their teams of volunteers [1]. If these phenomena persist, the potential range of support activities for the elderly, lonely, sick or marginalised may prove much smaller.

Not only alone. Also in cold and deprivation

It is also worth remembering that loneliness, solitude, is not the only problem faced by many older people. Some of them experience poverty. In 2020, there was an increase in extreme poverty among older people by 49,000 people [2]. Some households, including those in retirement, are also experiencing what is known as fuel poverty, having difficulty heating the home in which they spend so much time. Some of them, even if they are able to spend their meagre resources on home energy, will do so at the expense of other needs. In winter, when heating bills are higher and inflation drives up energy prices, the situation becomes really difficult. For many elderly people (but also younger ones, which we must not forget) it will be not only a lonely Christmas, but also a very humble one, or even a poor one, and a cold one, even if the temperature outside the window is not very low.

Establish or refresh contact. Both remote and direct 

Awareness of unfavourable conditions should make us pay even more attention and care to make this time as joyful as possible for those for whom this Christmas can be lonely and psychologically difficult.  As far as the people around us are concerned, we can start by contacting them by telephone [3], although in view of the sometimes difficult or broken links between us, this is not always emotionally easy. It is a good idea to try to make this contact as regular as possible and not to limit it to polite forms of small talk, but to actually try to refresh or establish a relationship and bring some warmth and positive energy into the life of older people. It may also be a good time – e.g. on the occasion of a St. Nicholas gift or a Christmas present – to exchange, after prior agreement with the addressee, a telephone for an elderly person for a model with functionalities profiled for the needs of seniors and facilitating their communication. It is also worth making an effort to make communication with the elderly possible – even if it is done remotely – in such a way that the contact is not only voice-related but also visual, which is possible thanks to various mobile devices. At the same time, older people sometimes need to be helped to make the appropriate equipment available and to operate it.  All these forms of remote contact should not, however, be regarded as an easily used, and sometimes abused, substitute for direct contact. If we have the opportunity, however, it is worth visiting, inviting or meeting the elderly person in person, and remote forms can be a complement and a tool for maintaining the relationship or an alternative when direct contact is not advisable or possible.

Not only within the family. There are many forms of assistance in which it is worth to become  involved.

We should remember at the same time that we should not open ourselves to the elderly and their needs only within the family.  The time before Christmas is a period when we should especially consider if there are people in need in our neighbourhood or further surroundings, including the elderly requiring support and company. In addition to individual solidarity and empathy, there are also more systemic support mechanisms that you can try to engage in.

Many initiatives already have experience in organizing events or helping to distribute aid. Since October 2020, for example, the “Support Seniors – Solidarity Senior Support Corps”[4] programme has been in operation. The program provides simple assistance to lonely seniors, e.g. in the area of shopping, medicines or pet sitting. Anyone may apply to the programme either through the programme’s official website, or directly to social welfare centers which coordinate and organise support under the government programme in the local area.  Non-governmental organizations also take part in the program, including those with an established reputation for helping seniors, such as Caritas Poland [5]. So you can try to apply to these organizations and take part in the “Supports Seniors” program through them. The program runs continuously (and may be extended in the coming months), so you don’t have to wait for Christmas to join it.  However, there are also other, local or bigger  assistance initiatives.

The long-standing “Presence” programme of the Little Brothers of the Poor Association, in which volunteers also establish links with the elderly people they support, is also worth noting [6]. Every year (actually more often, since it also takes place at Easter time) the association collects money for senior citizens at Christmas time. This is done as part of the “Give Christmas Eve to a Lonely Elderly Person” programme [7]. The formula of individualised gifts for the elderly is also practised by other organisations. For example, the Father Christmas for Seniors Foundation has been organising since 2018 and also this year an action in which donors respond to letters written by specific elderly people from social welfare homes and care facilities, in which the latter write about what they would like to receive for Christmas [8].

As you can see, there are many forms of assistance and initiatives to help the elderly (and others).  In addition, in previous years, many communities hosted special events organised by local authorities and institutions or parish structures.  It is likely that this year, too, such activities will take place on a larger or smaller scale. It is worth finding out on your own what is happening in your area or nearby and spreading the knowledge about it. You can support existing aid and integration programmes and actions both financially and directly by getting involved.  Most of them can be carried out in an epidemiologically safe manner, so even during the current wave of the pandemic we can safely carry them out, at the same time remembering how painful this time can be, especially for those who feel alone.

dr Rafał Bakalarczyk

[1]    Raport o obojętnieniu – Szlachetna Paczka i Akademia Przyszłości

[2]    Poverty Watch 2021: po pierwszym roku pandemii skrajnie ubogich więcej o ok. 378 tys., w tym 98 tys. dzieci i 49 tys. seniorów – Europejska Sieć Przeciwdziałania Ubóstwu (EAPN Polska)

[3]    O tym na co warto zwrócić uwagę pisaliśmy w jednym z wcześniejszych artykułów: Ekspert: Jak wybrać telefon dla osoby starszej. Czym się kierować przy jego wyborze? (myphone.pl)

[4]    Solidarnościowy Korpus Wsparcia Seniorów | #WspierajSeniora

[5]    Seniorzy – Caritas Polska

[6]    Obecnosc | mali bracia Ubogich (obecnoscpomaga.pl)

[7]    Podaruj Wigilię starszej samotnej osobie | mali bracia Ubogich (podarujwigilie.pl)

[8]    Mikołaj dla seniora (swietymikolajdlaseniora.pl)

Expert: How to make the elderly more active in the autumn
Aktywność seniorów
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

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