When you think of Christmas you might think of jostling for room at a packed dinner table, overly competitive games of backyard cricket or heated discussions about what time the roast goes in the oven. However, that's not the case for everyone.
Around 36% of older New Zealanders (aged 65+) live in single person households with many of them facing the prospect of celebrating Christmas alone. For Simon Templeton, Chief Executive of Age Concern Canterbury, loneliness and social isolation are "huge issues for older people" with studies showing that 10% of this demographic experience chronic loneliness. "That's not just moderately lonely, that's at the severe end – potentially not seeing anyone week on end".
It's an issue thousands of Kiwis face all year round but it can be highlighted during the festive season. So what can you do to help?
Here are a few ideas to spread a little joy this Christmas:
Offer a seat at your table
Food can be a great way to begin a conversation with someone as meals are often a shared experience. Invite an older neighbour to join you for Christmas lunch or dinner. If that's not possible you can always prepare a plate and share a few of your family's culinary traditions.
Ask if they need a lift somewhere
Around 60,000 New Zealanders over 65 don't have their driver licence, so mobility can be a barrier to visiting friends or family and completing tasks like Christmas shopping.
Set up their Christmas tree
Decorating a Christmas tree is tricky and physically demanding but it can play a large part in creating the feel of Christmas. Check if it's something that's important to an older person near you and if they need a hand setting it up.
Take a look at the decorations they have – are they bespoke, unusual or handmade? Ask the story behind them as a way to get to know them better.
Discussing decorations can also be extremely useful for someone suffering from dementia or cognitive impairment. As Simon explains, "Christmas is, throughout life, a time generally associated with strong, positive memories. And those strong memories are often something that's retained. So a family heirloom or something they may have made when they were a child, could take them back to that time and it will generally be a happy place to go".
Read aloud or write out Christmas cards
Giving and receiving Christmas cards can be an important ritual for older generations but it may be something they need support with if they have eye-sight problems or their hands have become less steady.
Use tech to help connect
Skype, email and messaging apps can be a great way to connect with loved ones. Many older people have adopted this technology into their daily life and feel confident using it but that's not always so. Offer a lesson over a cuppa or help set-up software for someone in your community looking to get started.
These might seem like small things but they can make a big difference to the health and well-being of vulnerable members within your community.
And for Simon, that's the great thing about this time of year – it gives us all a chance to make new connections. "Get to know your neighbours, and that doesn't have to be the people right beside you, it might be someone a few doors down or across the street. Get a handle for who's living around you, and if you don't see people dropping in, then Christmas is a great time to knock on their door and say, 'What are you doing for Christmas', 'Do you need any help with anything?'".
Z sites around New Zealand support groups and organisations like Age Concern Canterbury through Good in the Hood – an initiative focused on strengthening Kiwi communities. Find out more about Good in the Hood.
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