Time, attention best holiday gift for beloved elders

Social service agencies can’t take the place of a family member when it comes to human interaction and maintaining emotional well-being

Donna Vickroy
Chicago Tribune

In this season of giving and gathering, it’s a good time to remember that the best gift of all might be the one that can’t be bought, wrapped or overnighted.


So often we struggle with what to give the people on our lists when maybe all they really need is our attention.

That’s not always easy to part with, especially in this day and age of planning and over-scheduling. And yet on the receiving end might be someone whose time on this earth is limited — a senior.

“Past generations took better care of their seniors,” said Mary Beth Lunter, a caseworker for PLOWS Council on Aging, a nonprofit that serves Palos, Worth, Orland and Lemont townships.

That may seem harsh, but collectively, our generation of adult children is the generation that made daycare a thriving business. We are the inventors of after-school care, the outsourcers of human caretaking.

Of course, many of us strive to combat this trend. But changing economic demands have made a two-income household the standard at the same time that greater opportunities exist for women and men to pursue all-encompassing careers often far from where their parents are growing old.

Throw onto that pile the increasing demands of children’s extracurricular activities and you have a conspiracy against free time.

And that has taken a toll on our seniors, Lunter said.

In generations past, aging parents lived with their children. She remembers her grandparents living in the same apartment with her and her parents. That was the norm back then.

Thirty-eight percent of the 10,000 cases PLOWS handled last year in its Illinois service area, which includes Palos Heights, Tinley Park, Crestwood, Robbins and Hometown, involved seniors living alone, said Aileen Kokaska, PLOWS program manager.

“That’s a high number, but it is probably in pace with the rest of the country,” she said.

Granted, many aging adults will tell you they do not want to give up their homes or their independence, she said. Many are fearful of being put in a nursing home, she said.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t need our time and attention.

While social service agencies such as PLOWS can help with physical and logistical needs, they can’t take the place of a family member when it comes to human interaction and maintaining emotional well-being.

It is a predicament, particularly for families in which the adult children live far away or are busy tending to their own lives, Lunter said.

“Society has just gotten so busy. I hear all the time from my clients, ‘Yes, I have children nearby, but they’re so busy with their families and they’re working,’ ” Lunter said.

“I think with more women in the workforce and kids in programs that require moms and dad to spend a lot of time driving around, there just isn’t much time to check on aging parents and relatives,” she said. “Our jobs have become more demanding. We’re connected to our cell phones and computers. But I think seniors have kind of gotten somewhat forgotten.

“It’s not that people don’t love them, everyone is just so busy,” she said.

Kokaska said, as a result, many older people feel isolated, making them prone to depression, which can manifest itself in a lot of different ways.

“Not having the energy to take care of themselves or their homes, not taking their medications, not seeing their doctors, not eating properly,” she said.

Being alone a lot also can leave seniors vulnerable, Kokaska said. Unbeknownst to their loved ones, they can fall or forget to pay a bill, she said.

“Sometimes they befriend strangers, even letting people into their homes,” she said.

“We’ve had several incidences in which total strangers have moved into a senior’s house and taken control of their finances,” she said. “They target people living alone, people who don’t have much family and who have some sort of decline, whether it be physical or cognitive.”

Lunter said, “People who go out by themselves to a restaurant will find strangers coming up to them befriending them and next thing you know they’re telling the person their sob story. ‘I’m sick, I’ve got these little kids.’ And the senior gives them money and what they think is friendship ends up depleting their resources.”

To keep seniors safe and make them feel loved, Lunter said, “Try to spend whatever time you can with your loved ones. Be there for them whenever you can. Call them on the phone. You may not be able to see them all the time, but see them when you can. It really does mean a lot to them.”

To head off future issues, she advises adult children to get a power of attorney for healthcare and property while their parents are healthy and able. And, she said, consider having them add a child to their bank account so they can monitor things.

And, she added, educate yourself about the signs of decline. The agency gets an influx of calls around the holidays because family members are spending more time with their aging parents and they’ve noticed things slipping.

Maybe the senior needs a home-delivered meal a few days a week, which enables someone to actually see them and make sure they’re OK, Kokaska said. Maybe they need help keeping their home clean. Maybe they need someone to come in and modify living conditions —remove loose rugs that can be tripped over or install a shower bar.

“Our goal is always to keep people in their homes,” Lunter said. “But also to keep them healthy and safe.”

Be sure to talk with your seniors about their long-term care preferences, so when the time comes, everybody is prepared, she said.

Friends and neighbors can help, as well, by checking on the seniors in your neighborhood that they know live alone, Lunter said.

“I’ve really come to see it takes a village, as the saying goes,” she said.

Social media can be a connection for what Kokaska calls “young-old” seniors — those roughly between the ages of 60 and 75ish.

“They take care of themselves better, they tend to be more social and are very connected to social media,” she said.

Lunter said her mother falls into the “old-old” group at age 81, but keeps up with family members via Facebook.

“She also texts,” she said.

On the flip side, most of the “old-old” seniors — those in their late 70s, 80s and 90s — rely on phone calls or written letters and, as a result, can end up feeling even more isolated in a world obsessed with the convenience of electronic communication, she said.

The Rev. Lynn Bird, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Tinley Park, said social media cannot take the place of real human interaction.

“I have a strong bias that social media makes it worse,” Bird said. “Human beings need face to face contact. They need someone to actually put their arm around their shoulder and walk with them, sit with them, listen to them. And that cannot happen on social media. It’s not designed for that. Nothing can replace real human interaction.”

Bird said the holidays can make a person feel even more lonely.

“Historically, depression and anxiety run super high during this time of year. I think the reason for that primarily is that we kind of front-load our Christmas celebration with all sorts of expectations,” she said.

“We have in our heads what the ideal Christmas or Hannukah or New Year’s celebration should look like and feel like. And when it doesn’t we kind of set ourselves up. It’s unfortunate that our culture kind of encourages us to live larger than we are, spend more than we have and be the hostess with the ‘mostest.’ ”

The reality, she said, is much different.

“I know this personally. My family is spread out all over the country,” she said. “The economics of our lives have taken our children and grandchildren and parents far far away from each other. We often aren’t able to gather and we need community around us all the time.”

For the second year, Zion held a “blue” Christmas service for people across the community and surrounding area who wanted to observe and honor their faith without being part of the larger celebration. Perhaps they have lost someone dear or have suffered a severe diagnosis or are dealing with some kind of sadness, she said.

One of the biggest contributors to sorrow is loneliness, Bird said.

“We need to love our neighbors as ourselves,” Bird said. “Think about how you would feel if you were all alone.”

Bird recommends anyone suffering from serious depression seek professional help.

“The things we do as a church and encourage people to do is reach out to their neighbors, to their friends and their loved ones, particularly those who are far away or alone or who are struggling economically,” she said.

“We all need community,” she said. “We all need to feel we belong.”