A Christmas Tree Star

A story of lasting love and a sweet read for the holidays-  

Author – Susan Graham

This was my grandmother’s first Christmas without Grandfather, and we had promised him before he passed away that we would make this her best Christmas ever.

When my mom, dad, three sisters and I arrived at her little house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, we found she had waited up all night for us to arrive from Texas. After we exchanged hugs, Donna, Karen, Kristi and I ran into the house. It did seem a little empty without Grandfather, and we knew it was up to us to make this Christmas special for her.

Grandfather had always said that the Christmas tree was the most important decoration of all. So,we immediately set to work assembling the beautiful artificial tree that was stored in Grandfather’s closet. Although artificial, it was the most genuine-looking Douglas fir I had ever seen. Tucked away in the closet with the tree was a spectacular array of ornaments, many of which had been my father’s when he was a little boy. As we unwrapped each one, Grandmother had a story to go along with it.

My mother strung the tree with bright white lights and a red button garland; my sisters and I carefully placed the ornaments on the tree; and finally, my Father was given the honor of lighting the tree. We stepped back to admire our handiwork. To us, it looked magnificent, as beautiful as the tree in Rockefeller Center. But something was missing.

“Where’s your star?” I asked. The star was my grandmother’s favorite part of the tree. “Why, it must be here somewhere,” she said, starting to sort through the boxes again. “Your grandfather always packed everything so carefully when he took the tree down.” As we emptied box after box and found no star, my grandmother’s eyes filled with tears. This was no ordinary ornament, but an elaborate golden star covered with colored jewels and blue lights that blinked on and off. Moreover, Grandfather had given it to Grandmother some fifty years ago, on their first Christmas together. Now, on her first Christmas without him, the star was gone, too.

Don’t worry, Grandmother,” I reassured her. “We’ll find it for you.”
My sisters and I formed a search party. Let’s start in the closet where the ornaments were,” Donna said. “Maybe the box just fell down.”
That sounded logical, so we climbed on a chair and began to search that tall closet of Grandfather’s. We found my Father’s old yearbooks and photographs of relatives, Christmas cards from years gone by, and party dresses and jewelry boxes, but no star.

We searched under beds and over shelves, inside and outside, until we had exhausted every possibility. We could see Grandmother was disappointed, although she tried not to show it.

“We could buy a new star,” Kristi offered.
“I’ll make you one from construction paper,” Karen chimed in.
“No, it is OK” Grandmother said. “This year, we won’t have a star.”
By now, it was dark outside, and time for bed, as Santa would soon be here. We lay in bed, snowflakes falling quietly outside.

The next morning, my sisters and I woke up early, to see what Santa had left under the tree. After a traditional breakfast of apple pancakes, the family sat down together to open presents.

Santa had brought me the Easy-Bake Oven I wanted, and Donna a Chatty-Cathy doll. Karen was thrilled to get the doll buggy she had asked for, and Kristi to get the china tea set. Father was in charge of passing out the presents, so that everyone would have something to open at the same time.

“The last gift is to Grandmother from Grandfather,” he said, in a puzzled voice. “From who?” There was surprise in my grandmother’s voice. “I found that gift in Grandfather’s closet when we got the tree down,” Mother explained. “It was already wrapped so I put it under the tree. I thought it was one of yours.”

“Hurry and open it,” Karen urged excitedly. My grandmother shakily opened the box. Her face lit up with joy when she unfolded the tissue paper and pulled out a glorious golden star. There was a note attached. Her voice trembled as she read it aloud. “Don’t be angry with me, dear. I broke your star while putting away the decorations, and I couldn’t bear to tell you. Thought it was time for a new one. I hope it brings you as much joy as the first one. Merry Christmas. Love, Bryant”

So Grandmother’s tree had a star after all, a star that expressed my grandparents’ everlasting love for one another. It brought my grandfather home for Christmas in each of our hearts.

Older Adults, Loneliness And The Holidays

Although the holiday season is supposed to be a time of sharing joy and good tidings, very often people—especially those who are older—find that, as the season unfolds, they feel progressively disappointed, stressed and sad.

There are many influencing factors that can contribute to seniors being at particular risk of suffering from the “holiday blues,” including:

  • Reminders of past losses of significant loved ones–Many seniors have survived a number of their cherished friends and family members and these losses often take on greater significance during the holidays.
  • Sadness over the contrast between “then” and “now”—For many older people, the memories of holidays past so outshine present day celebrations they feel unable to focus on or experience pleasure in the “now.”
  • Unrealistic expectations—the holidays can bring a host of expectations, such as family togetherness, festive events and feelings of expanded happiness. Reality too often falls short of these expectations, which can cause an individual to plummet to new lows of sadness, feelings of loneliness and despair.
  • Spending the holidays alone—Some seniors live by themselves and/or at a distance from friends and family and spend much, if not all, of the holidays alone. Grown children often become busy with their own social obligations and may not realize how much their parents or grandparents look forward to sharing time during the holidays with them.

If You Are An Older Adult Feeling Lonely This Hoiliday Season:  

The following strategies can be useful in helping to get around potential sources of the “holiday blues”:

  • Adjust your expectations—For example, if you think the perfect family get-together won’t be a part of this year’s holidays, keeping this realistic assumption in mind can help you avoid frustration when and if something should go wrong or be less than desirable when your family gets together.
  • Limit predictable sources of stress—If you feel the annual trappings of shopping, decorating, cooking and attending social events risks becoming overwhelming and stressful, limit the activities you commit to.
  • Seek new, enjoyable ways of getting physical exercise—Exercising, for example, aerobics, walking, skiing, hiking, yoga, or swimming can help burn away a lot of stress as well as the extra calories of holiday meals.
  • Get together with friends and family members—As much as possible, share the holidays with friends and family members in person, as well by phone, e-mail, and mail. The holiday season is also a good time to contact someone you have not heard from for awhile. For those who have recently suffered the loss of someone especially close, spend time with special friends and family with whom you can reminisce and share stories and cherished memories about your loved one.
  • Join a social group—Feelings of loneliness and isolation can often be remedied by participating in activities with others. This can also help in opening up the potential for making new friends.
  • Engage in volunteer activity—Helping others is a pretty foolproof method of making the holidays feel more meaningful. There are many volunteer organizations that need extra help during this time of year.
  • Adopt a pet—Many have found that assuming the responsibility of caring for and loving a pet brings new joy and companionship into their lives.
  • Remember that life brings changes–As families change and grow, traditions often need to adapt to the new configurations. While you can hold onto certain family rituals, for instance, a certain holiday activity or preparing a long-cherished family recipe, some traditions, such as everyone gathering at your house, may not be possible this year. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by comparing this year’s holiday season with the “good ol’ days.”

Though intense and unsettling, the holiday blues are usually short-lived and last a few weeks around the holidays.  The sadness usually subsides after the holiday season is over and the individual gets back to their normal routine. 

If you know of an older adult who is feeling sad this season, reach out to them.  You can help them to enjoy the present, reflect positively on the past, while encouraging them to stay connected to others. This may be the best gift you can offer them during the holidays.

Laura Kay House is the owner of  SILVER CONNECTIONS, a socializing group for single, active, age 55+ adults.  Numerous socializing opportunities are provided through local events and travel while stressing personal service and a sense of community within the membership.      www.silverconnections.org

Courage

After being one-half of a couple for decades, those who find themselves single again after age 55, can face incredible loneliness and despair.  Whether it is because of death of a spouse or divorce, starting over again alone can cause overwhelming  anxiety.  

Everyone deals with their grief in their own way. Many find that meeting with others who are also suffering through a loss, is a help.  Others find time with family is a way to cope, while others spend hours alone dealing with their sorrow.

It takes time to adjust to the absence of a long-time partner in any situation, but there will eventually come a time when the sadness lifts and an individual is ready to enjoy social activities again.  They realize that they may have 15-20 years of life left to live.  Many times the friends that they currently have are married or having moved to a new city to be close to family, but knowing no-one else, can be isolating.

I have met many individuals in my work  that are in the very beginning stages of this process. When I first meet with them, you can see the sadness in their eyes and tone as they discuss their partner who is no longer with them.  But, at the same time, I see the willingness and desire to begin their life again while no longer being part of a couple.   Whether because of a death or divorce, they are trying to reinvent themselves alone, after 55.

This is where the courage comes in.

How many remember having to do something for the first time and the anxiety that comes with it?  If you are on the shy or introverted side, it makes it even harder.  Did you ever have to move and start a new school where you did not know anyone?    Or, how about going away to college or starting a new job where you were all alone?   Who will I talk to?  Will everyone be friends and I will be ignored?   Will they like me?  Do I know how to act in this new environment?

Add those types of fears onto someone who is older, who is attempting to make new friends and engage in life without their “other half” for the first time in many, many years.  

It is much easier to stay home and feel safe, wrapped in the memories of the partner who they are living without.  It takes courage to do what is necessary to go on.

I have seen time after time how difficult it is the first time one of my Silver Connections members attends their first event.   How easy it would be to turn away and just leave!  They consider it, they begin to turn back, but they don’t. 

In spite of the fear and the anxiety, they know it is time. They will never forget the memories of the past or the person they shared such a large part of their life with.  They put their hand on the door, open it,  and with courage….begin to take the first steps to live life again.

“You’ve Got To Have Friends” The Importance of Socializing For Those Age 55+

There was a song that was made popular by Bette Midler in 1973 called “You’ve Got To Have Friends”.  Friendships and socializing with others is important at any age, but especially in the 55+ years.   

I would like to tell you about a lady that I know named Jane.  At 70 years old, she has a vibrant social circle.  Though she has been widowed for many years, has at times struggled financially and has lost a son, she is rarely lonely.  Her friends and her social interaction has kept a sparkle in her eye, warmth in her laughter and bounce in her step.  Jane is a perfect example that one of the secrets of successful aging lies in our friendships with others.   

Not everyone has the social structure that Jane has; whether it is because of relocation, divorce, widowhood, retirement, or just a shift in friendships, both men and women may suffer from loneliness as they grow older. How can social interaction affect overall well-being?  

Having lots of friends and social connections is very good for your mental and physical health. A massive study of 4,725 age 55+ randomly selected residents of Alameda County in California found that those with the fewest close friends and social connections had mortality rates that were two to three times higher than those with high levels of social connectedness. Also, life expectancy tables show a difference of nine years between people with very poor social connections and those with very good ones. Friendships and continued socializing as we age creates a feeling of belonging, a buffer against stress and a sense of purpose in feeling needed by our friends. When a friend reflects to us that we are loved and valued, our thoughts about ourselves rise in a corresponding matter.  

Close friendships, through protection against isolation, provides benefits such as maintaining the elasticity of blood vessels, maintaining healthier blood pressures and lowering cardiac inflammatory protein levels. Friendships can also encourage health–promoting behaviors like proper sleep and exercise, and friends will let you know when they don’t approve of your smoking or eating too much.  Friends also help out when you need a ride to the doctor or bring over soup when you have a cold.  

Scientists have long observed that a lack of social interaction and friends, by contrast, is also major risk factor for disease and early death, comparable to high blood pressure, obesity, and other serious health risks. “Being socially isolated is comparable to the negative effects of smoking for your health,” says James Coan, PhD, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. “Lonely people tend to react more intensely to life’s problems and feel more threatened by a difficult situation. This in turn may cause high blood pressure, increase in heart rate, sleep disturbance and depression. “ 

 Scientists are also finding out that we are hardwired to seek out others. Too much alone time and our bodies send out distress signals. When a person feels lonely, their brain responds by increasing the levels of the hormone cortisol. Over a long period of time, this hormone can harm us by destroying neurons that affect memory and interfere with sleep.  When people experience social exclusion, it activates the same region of the brain when we’re physically hurt.  Humans require others to survive and feel distress when they are isolated. 

 My friend Jane lives so well as she has grown older because she cultivated her old friends and has stimulated her mind by getting to know new ones.  She has never forgotten, beyond anything else, that we all truly need each other.