We seniors have been blessed with an abundance of years. In our western culture, that means an abundance of Christmases. We have the perspective to look back and observe how Christmas has changed for us. In our grandparents’ time, everyone was included at Christmas and Hanukkah; grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were all a part of gatherings and events.
In Canada and the United States, during the 1940s and 1950s, ethnicity was still a factor in our communities, and large Jewish, Italian, German, French and Eastern European families observed their unique traditions, especially at Christmas. Grandparents and other older relatives had a secure place in our families. We can all remember them, the contributions they made, the complications of their daily lives, the stories about them. They were sometimes loveable and wise and sometimes irascible and cantankerous—they possessed the full range of human qualities. During Christmas, they participated fully, sometimes insisting on observing old world customs. Our celebrations were more complicated because of them, and undoubtedly richer.
Somewhere during the past 50 years, something shifted and changed. Families moved away from their home communities—for military service, for employment, for education, sometimes just for greener pastures. The economy was booming, there were opportunities everywhere and we were anxious to move on and “make something of ourselves”.
Suddenly, our Christmases were sadder, there was a pathos about them. We were away from home, and our thoughts at Christmas went back to the way it was when we were young and in our home communities. We even had a song about it. “I’ll be home for Christmas”, Bing Crosby sang, and we tried to honour that. When he sang, in “White Christmas”, about the feelings he had with …”every Christmas card I write”, it tugged at our heartstrings. We still went home. But this time it was for other reasons.
As grandparents died, we attended their funerals. And later, when parents became ill, we went home to care for them. Gradually, we began to talk about what we should do to “keep them safe”. For many, safety and security meant placing older relatives in retirement communities. This is not ideal, we thought, but it’s not all bad. Parents are cared for and comfortable. There is less risk if they become ill. And Christmas, we thought, is less lonely for them.
Throughout our western cultures, we are still struggling with solutions for what to do about living arrangements for elderly parents, and increasingly for ourselves. These are the choices available to us today:
- move in with adult children
- live alone
- move into assisted living and nursing homes
- live in traditional retirement communities
Most of us don’t want to live with our adult children. Being independent is a high priority for us, and aging in our own homes, with family or paid support, is a very attractive option—but only as long as we have our health and financial security. For some of us, the very thought of being in assisted living or nursing homes fills us with dread—we consider it a last resort.
We acknowledge also that traditional retirement communities work only as long as we can manage our needs independently. But choices need to be made, and in doing so, we put health care and physical comfort high on our list of what we need and want in the new spaces we inhabit.
In many cases, however, none of these options consider our most basic, but often overlooked need, human connection. Loneliness is emerging as one of the top concerns of seniors. Christmas is a time when feelings of isolation and abandonment come sharply into focus. Being in a residence with others of the same age was once considered an antidote to loneliness, but it is not always so. In fact, some of us, as residents in retirement and nursing homes withdraw into our own rooms and do not associate with others. We may be eating at the same tables and walking the same hallways, but we don’t connect with other residents.
We have nothing in common, we may think, or we just don’t feel up to socializing. This is not surprising, since many of us, for health or financial reasons, may feel we had no choice in leaving our former living arrangements.
Today’s seniors are thinking creatively about how they will spend their last years. We are looking to other countries for inspiration. In Denmark, for example, co-housing, in which two or more seniors share a home and related costs, is an established option. These homes are designed to allow owners or renters to live independent lives while sharing costs for support services such as meal preparation and home care. A tremendous advantage is having companionship—sharing occasions like Christmas are a given!
Here in Canada, organizations like Solterra Co-Housing act as a third-party to manage shared residences and coordinate support services. Inter-generational housing, an option which involves more than one generation of the same family living in the same house, but in separate units, has always existed in most countries in the form of in-law suites. The benefits of this arrangement are obvious, allowing seniors to live independently and have assistance when needed. Municipalities, which sometimes hinder these arrangements, need to be encouraged to support them, by relaxing building codes and municipal by-laws. In Canada, CARP has studied our housing needs as we age, and says:
“Co-housing and inter-generational housing is not for everyone, but for single seniors the two options are legitimate alternatives to expensive retirement homes and to the institutional care offered by nursing homes. These options can reduce the potentially negative effects of living alone.”
In an effort to be pro-active, Baby Boomers are currently exploring new ways to band together to help each other as we age. In her new book, With a Little Help from Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older, Beth Baker discusses these attempts. She says:
“So, they’re coming up with all sorts of alternatives that give them both independence, on the one hand, and community and relationships, on the other – ‘interdependence’.”
The movement towards creative solutions for our old age is encouraging. As we make our way through the confusing array of options, we need to keep in mind that while physical safety and comfort is important, social support is paramount. Helping seniors like us stave off feelings of isolation and loneliness is essential at all times, and especially at Christmas.