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Warm Hearts with Your Presence!

Text of our Advent video series, Week 1

In this year’s Advent series, entitled WARM HEARTS WITH YOUR PRESENCE, we’ll be looking at the issue of loneliness, especially as it affects the elderly, and at ways we can reach out to seniors during the holiday season. I know Advent doesn’t officially start until Sunday, but the Christmas rush began with Black Friday, so we might as well get started!

Today I’d like to highlight the issue of loneliness among the elderly by sharing some recent research findings, and then in the weeks ahead we’ll look at concrete efforts we can make to be more present to our elderly loved ones and neighbors.

Consider the following:

  • In the United States 28% of seniors live alone and over 1/3 of older people report experiencing frequent or intense loneliness.
  • 22% of seniors living in the United States are elder orphans or are at risk of becoming so. This is a term used to describe older people who have no living spouse, children or siblings to count on for support.
  • Seniors find themselves orphaned for many reasons: the passing of loved ones; lower marriage and birth rates; higher divorce rates; estrangement from children and grandchildren;
    our society’s ideal of independence and autonomy, which has been accentuated by Baby Boomers; and the common phenomenon of family members being dispersed all over the country.
  • Recent medical studies have revealed that there is a concrete link between loneliness and early mortality. Loneliness is related to obesity, Alzheimers, diabetes, increased blood pressure and heart disease. It’s more dangerous to your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
  • Prolonged loneliness also impacts the human brain in ways similar to traumatic stress. Lonely people often develop defense mechanisms that make it difficult for them to nurture new relationships or deepen existing ones. They become suspicious and self-protective in order to avoid further rejection, and this leads to deeper and deeper isolation.
  • Finally, some good news: Neuroscientists have also discovered that while the type of emotional support that can be received from professional caregivers is somewhat healing, what is far more curative are connections built on bonds of reciprocity and mutual support.

It turns out that when Jesus said, “It is better to give than to receive” (cf. Acts 20:35), he was right — not just spiritually, but in terms of our physical health as well!

So what can we take away from this? Regardless of our age, many of us experience loneliness and stress during the holiday season. When we make the effort to help others, we are also helping ourselves! And in our outreach to the elderly, while it is wonderful to give them pleasure, it is even better to find ways of enabling them to contribute their unique gifts to others.

I’ll close with some practical advice that Pope Saint John Paul II once shared with senior citizens: “When you are lonely, go and visit somebody who is still lonelier than you! This wisdom I would like to recommend to you. Open your mind to those companions on your road whom you can help in one way or the other — through a conversation, through giving a hand, some favor, or at least your expressed sympathy! I promise to you in the name of Jesus: in this you are going to find strength and consolation.”

So let’s get out there and start warming hearts with our presence!