Aging Forward: Beat Winter Blues by Staying Connected

Patrick Arbore
By Patrick Arbore December 15, 2013 11:07

Patrick Arbore, Ed.D

Writing this column I asked myself, when did autumn turn to winter? How could I have missed this seasonal change? The holidays have come and in some cases gone, yet winter remains. In the poem “First Snow,” Mary Oliver captures such a moment:    

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how
whence such beauty and what
the meaning

As I ponder the poet’s well-chosen words, I am reminded of past winters on a Pennsylvania dairy farm impatiently awaiting Christmas and New Year’s, yet painfully aware of the long winter months that followed. While not all my memories were wrapped in joy, the holidays were a time of inspiration, reflection and connection with family, friends and the community.

I know many people who dread this season. “I feel so blue,” they say. Or “Christmas is too commercial,” “the holidays are just for children,” or simply, “I long for spring.” Some people feel depressed, dreaming only of the past, retreating into fantasies and avoiding reality.

This column is not about finding ways to ignore this time of year or learning how to avoid the sadness some people feel due to losses or lack of resources. It is about making the effort to be fully alive.

Recognize opportunities to connect. Greet your neighbor. Smile at the grocery clerk. Speak to the older man or woman whom you have passed on the street many times but have never taken time to greet.

Remember that there is still magic to be found in these cold winter days. There are moments of awe and wonder as children gaze at sparkling lights on houses or trees, and there are spiritual or religious traditions that infuse the season with a sense of history and community, joy and hope.

It is normal to feel sadness or grief because loved ones, through death or illness, are absent from holiday gatherings. Rather than repress these feelings, express them: Let someone know how you feel. If you don’t, these feelings will burrow deeper inside, last longer and cast a pall over the new year.

Winter weather can interfere with an older person’s ability to engage in social interaction. Older callers to our 24-hour Friendship Line routinely say the winter months are particularly difficult because they fear falling on wet or icy sidewalks. They remain indoors and often are alone for long periods of time.

What can you do if you find yourself refusing invitations or withdrawing from prior pleasurable activities? You may want to reach out to someone or call the Friendship Line (1-800-971-0016) to explore your feelings. Withdrawing may lead to loneliness; loneliness may trigger depression. To decrease this likelihood, I urge you to connect with others especially when you feel empty, lonely or sad.

Psychologist Albert Ellis has written that the way you interpret and evaluate your reality is key to your emotional and mental health. Resist your resistance. Remind yourself that you have gifts worth giving.

Explore volunteer opportunities through your church, hospital, or social service organization. Getting involved and helping others can be a great way to lift your spirits and re-engage in your community. Resolve to practice living in the moment, whether through activities, prayer, meditation, meaningful conversations or other endeavors. By doing so, you may find that fatigue, depression and some physical illnesses ease.

In the final stanza of Oliver’s poem, she writes about the silence and the light:

and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain—not a single
answer has been found—
walking out now into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

I hear in this poem a gentle spiritual reminder that what we possess is our aliveness. Although we are separate individuals, we are not really alone. We are connected to one another, and these connections are what bind us to life. 

Patrick Arbore, Ed.D., founded and directs the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services at San Francisco’s Institute on Aging. He also founded and directs the Friendship  Line, a nationwide suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-971-0016.

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Patrick Arbore
By Patrick Arbore December 15, 2013 11:07
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