It’s that time of year again: The Holidays. As the year starts to wane, the accompanying festivities bring cheer to some hearts and a song to some lips, but it is a knife that cuts deep for others. These holidays are rooted in two things: family and religion. Many Americans believe that those are both sacred virtues, held by most people, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy them is a “scrooge” or a misfit of some sort. As we become an increasingly diverse society, this attitude can exclude many people and be hurtful to others.
For some people, the holidays are not a time of cheer and family warmth, they are a yearly ordeal to be endured. Holiday depression has been around for as long as psychologists have been in business. Any therapist will tell you it’s a palpable phenomenon. When you search the internet for evidence of this you will come up with dozens of articles. They mostly identify overload and stress as the major culprits for the melancholy, and that it can be an especially challenging period for introverts.
The holidays are stressful
These articles are filled with references to family traditions and the stress around preparations for a large meal and being around so many people at one time. Interestingly, very little reference is made to Solo Agers, older adults who don’t have family with whom to spend a holiday. It seems as though the common assumption, even among mental health professionals, is that everyone has family, even though they may not get along with them or may not even like them. However, this is increasingly not the case in American society.
Here is a description of the “holiday blues” from HealthPartners: “The holidays are a stereotypically cheerful time when everyone is meant to be surrounded by loved ones and enjoying every second of the season. But when someone isn’t feeling happy or cheerful, or if they can’t be near their loved ones, the apparent cheer surrounding them can make them feel even more down, and often alone with their feelings – which deepens symptoms of depression.” This is all fine except that it doesn’t address many immigrants from other cultures or people without family connections.
It also doesn’t help that the nights are long and the daylight short-lived at this time of year. In the later months of the year, we get increasingly less exposure to sun, which in turn reduces the amount of vitamin D our bodies produce. These low levels of vitamin D have been linked to depression and lower moods. In fact, this winter-time mood disruption is common enough that mental health experts have given it a name: Seasonal affective Disorder (SAD).
Solo Agers are especially vulnerable
The childless rate among boomers is almost double what it has been throughout previous generations. Because boomers are all over 55 now, they will soon be the oldest generation in the country. Once they have left the workplace, isolation and loneliness can be a significant issue, especially for those who live alone, and that is now a very large number. Over 13 million older adults (about 28%) live alone in the United States. Of course, living alone is not an instant recipe for loneliness, but even the most gregarious and outgoing among us can feel the pangs of loneliness and isolation around the holidays if there is no one with whom to spend time.
The combination of holiday expectations and reduced sunlight is challenging for many people, no matter their familial circumstances, but those who have few family connections and/or live alone are particularly at risk. If you have friends or relatives who fit this profile, this is a great time to reach out to them and offer a connection. It might be an invitation to share a meal, an offer to get together for a walk, or even a phone call.