Every holiday we celebrate this season (and really, year round) has a common theme. Feasting on turkey, stuffing and cranberries around the family table. Opening presents together around the light of the menorah or the fragrant Christmas tree. Baking cookies or frying donuts to share with friends and family. What unites all of these traditions and all of their variations is the communal aspect. Togetherness. Traditions are hard to maintain alone. Whether you are celebrating with your family of origin, the family you created with your partner, extended families of all sorts, or even the friends who have become as close as family, those relationships are what make the season bright.
For many individuals, the absense of this communal support makes the holiday season significantly less merry and bright. There are many great ways to share your holiday spirit with the lonely during the holidays.
Visiting a nursing home is the easiest and most obvious place to start when looking for a place to share your holiday joy. Many nursing home residents have outlived their families or do not have local family with whom they can celebrate. Visits are few and far between. Make a call to your local nursing home, and ask to speak to a volunteer coordinator or activities coordinator. Express your interest, and you will be amazed at how open they can be to engaging volunteer friendly visitors who have the sole responsibility of schmoozing with the residents. They will direct you to appropriate clients, and will often give you guidelines and good ideas for conversation starters. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Prepare your child in advance so they know what to expect. Talk about previous interactions with the elderly (like their great-grandparents, if they have them). Remind them (if they speak already) to speak clearly and slowly.
- Be sure not to bring your children if they are sick. The elderly generally have weaker immune systems and shouldn’t be exposed to your kiddo’s germs.
- Make sure to introduce yourselves when you first meet the client. Explain why you’ve come, and wish them a happy holiday.
- Ask open ended questions that can get a conversation flowing. It can be challenging to connect immediately with someone you haven’t met before.
- A great place to start can be to ask about any personal items they have in the room – often there is a story behind them.
- Another great tactic for starting conversation is to reminisce about their earliest holiday celebrations. How did they celebrate Thanksgiving as a child? What was their favorite holiday memory or tradition?
Another option when visiting a nursing home is to lead an activity or entertain a small group of visitors. If you have preschoolers who love to sing, pick and practice a few songs in advance, and then take your show on the road from room to room. If your kids love crafts, photocopy some holiday themed coloring sheets and start some intergenerational coloring time. If residents love BINGO, enlist your kids to help announce the numbers as you pick them, and come prepared with some home-decorated prizes for the winners, like decorated picture frames or hand-tied fleece lap blankets.
If you are intimidated by the nursing home setting, another good avenue is to reach out within your network to find and visit elderly residents in your community who don’t have local family. Little C is so lucky to have four living great-grandparents, and many of their friends do not have kids who live in the same city as they do. Oftentimes, they see family for Thanksgiving, but not Hanukkah or vice versa. If you don’t live in the same city as your extended family like we do, put feelers out to friends who are local, seeking out surrogate grandparents to visit. If you are comfortable with it, offer to visit in their home, or if you aren’t, offer to meet at a local coffee shop, restaurant, or book store near the senior’s home. These sort of arrangements make better ongoing commitments rather than one-time visits. If you’re able, invite them to share in your family’s festive meal or to share in another family tradition.
For those who are shy and not the friendly visiting type, there are other ways to share joy with the lonely. Create a holiday card coloring template, and with your child, decorate a whole bunch of cards. Many agencies are happy to distribute them, from hospitals to food pantries to senior care facilities. Use first names only, and holiday-neutral language (Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas). Donate lights and holiday decorations to elder care facilities. Get creative.
Would you take your children to visit the elderly?
2. Volunteering with Kids: Holiday Edition, Part Two by Mrs. Confetti
3. Volunteering with Kids: Holiday Edition, Part Three by Mrs. Confetti