By Dr Gero Baiarda, Private GP & Primary Care Dermatologist at GPDQ, the UK’s first doctor-on-demand app
Christmas Day will soon be upon us. For most of us, it’s a time of joy and happiness as we gather with loved ones and celebrate the festive spirit. My children have spoken of little else since we disembarked from the plane that brought us home from holiday this summer.
For many others, however, December 25th is just another dreary day spent alone, or worse still, a time of year that highlights their sadness, loss of loved ones, and established, long-accepted isolation. This is especially true for the older generation.
There is no escaping it either; Christmas is literally everywhere you look, and it seems now that nearly a quarter of the year is spent working up to this one day of guaranteed fun for all, as promised to us by the media. But unfortunately, this is not the reality for everyone…
A bittersweet Christmas
Christmas Day has been bittersweet for me since 2007, as I will always associate it with my mother becoming unwell with the illness that ultimately and tragically took her life just a few days short of her 59th birthday. She died before the birth of any of the grandchildren she always wanted and would have adored.
Every year as I watch my children tearing into their gifts with exuberant enthusiasm, I always think of how much my mother would have enjoyed her grandchildren enjoying Christmas, and it taints this otherwise perfect picture with a sadness I try to hide. My father and I exchange a silent look, and I know he feels it too. He is especially quiet at Christmas.
But at least he is not alone; since he became a widower, he has always spent Christmas Day with his family and grandchildren. Countless other men of his years are not so lucky.
For the hundreds of thousands of older people without close family or friends, there is no particular reason to put up decorations or prepare anything other than their usual microwave meal.
This is perhaps eaten in front of Eastenders, where fictional families are seen enjoying a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings in the company of their relatives, friends, and even enemies. Admittedly, we viewers know as they dine that some unforeseen tragedy is certain to ruin Christmas in the Queen Vic yet again (as it does every year), but at least none of them are alone.
My point is that those who have nobody cannot help but think they are the only people on Earth without company at this time of year. If even dysfunctional and warring families on television spend Christmas together, it is easy to assume, ‘I have somehow brought this isolation upon myself. I am alone because I have failed in some way.’
The sad truth
Last Christmas, nearly 5.7 million people aged 65 or over who were surveyed by Age UK admitted that their lives felt repetitive, and almost a quarter of them (some 1.4 million) stated that Christmas was just another day that passed them by with nothing to distinguish it from any other lonely day.
In fact, the charity suggested that 873, 000 people aged 65 and over will not speak to anybody over the entire festive period, and for 55% of them, the only semblance of human company they will have is the television, i.e. Mick Carter, the Queen, and Harry Potter. Throughout the rest of the year, they often go days without having to utter a word.
Poignantly, they may remember numerous genuinely joyous Christmas Days in the past prior to the loss or departures of loved ones, and that can make the present isolation all the more acute.
How to cope with depression at Christmas
- Don’t suffer in silence – Although Christmas may highlight how you feel, there is no need to suffer alone at this time of year or any other.
Your GP is always a good first port of call. As a GP myself, I find that many of my elderly patients want no more than a friendly ear and a chat – somebody to listen and treat them with respect.
On a practical level, your GP can refer you to professionals for the physical, emotional and psychological support you might need, whether that is social services review and a support package or psychological input and counselling.
You might also consider contacting Age UK, who are extremely understanding and have numerous volunteers who can both regularly visit you in person or call you on the phone.
- If you have lost someone, allow yourself to grieve – If you are feeling a loved one’s absence more acutely at Christmas, it is OK to feel sad, but also allow yourself an opportunity to do something you will enjoy and that will lift your mood.
Your grief is a sign that the person you are missing made a positive and joyful contribution to your life – remember the happiness they brought you and enjoy it. Recall something about them that makes you laugh or smile.
There is little doubt they would want you to be happy every day, let alone at Christmas. This is a cliché solely because it is so true.
- Don’t isolate yourself, you really don’t have to – Even if you have nobody, it is very unlikely that you have no option but to be alone. Try to make contact with others in your community who you know or suspect to be lonely.
If you are fit and well enough to do so, volunteer to help others who are in need. You will not have to look very hard. In one stroke, you are not only no longer alone yourself but also spending your time in a manner which is extremely gratifying and truly reflects the spirit of Christmas.
Taking this path can also lead onto a new venture in your life that could continue into the following year and beyond. Many of my patients who have done so have told me it has given their lives new purpose.
- Accept Christmas Day for what it is rather than as a reflection of your life – Christmas really is just a day. It is in no way a reward or punishment for how you have lived your life in general or in the previous twelve months in particular.The festive period is not the right time to reflect upon the success or failure of your relationships with your spouse, children, or even your own inherent flaws as a human being. This is best done once the Christmas decorations are down and packed away. Any issues you feel need to be addressed can wait until January. This still leaves plenty of time to ensure next Christmas will be different.
How you can help others to be a part of Christmas
- Spare a thought – Think of neighbours and others further afield who could be on their own, and give them a call – ask them how they are and wish them a Merry Christmas. Do not just assume they are fine and somebody somewhere is taking care of them.
It only need be a quick call, but it will bring an immeasurable lift to their morale because they will know they have not been forgotten.
Just a simple hello when you bump into a neighbour may be all that is needed to cast a little light on an otherwise grey and featureless Christmas. It is all too easy to walk by in one’s own little world.
You could even consider putting a note under the door of a neighbour inviting them round for a cup of tea and a mince pie. Kindness reveals itself in the smallest of gestures.
For all the hype and excess, Christmas can be a wonderful time of year, and is often an opportunity to build bridges and bring out the best in yourself. Spare a thought for somebody you may know who might not be enjoying the festivities as much as you are.