Feelings of emptiness and loneliness affect us all, but this time of year, as the holidays approach, can be especially difficult for single people and the elderly. How many elderly people dine alone each evening, in their own apartments or in assisted-living centers, financially supported by their children miles away?
In each of us, there is a longing for community, to share whatever we have with others. God created us as communal beings, not as hermits. It does not matter whether we are old or young, sick or healthy. We belong together, and this togetherness brings fulfillment.
We innately know this, of course. Many veterans tell me they returned for multiple tours of duty overseas because of the sense of family and community they felt with their fellow soldiers. Former gang members have also told me that their “street family” was closer and stronger than their biological family. In schools, coaches and teachers often find they are the only ones providing a family for their students.
As society becomes more fragmented, it is often the old who suffer most. They hurt for a sense of family and community. In my experience, they need to live in communal settings, where they can not only be looked after, but also continue to contribute and love and share. In Galatians we are told to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). When we feed the hungry, care for the sick, or visit someone else who is lonely we lighten their burden as well as our own.
My neighbor Ken Johnson, a retired physician, founded several organizations to address these issues. He remembers:
In every community there are very old people who live alone with serious disability and without adequate family, social, and financial supports. Their children and grandchildren are dispersed to far distances or live in spaces insufficient for accommodating an aged parent.
To combat these problems, I envisioned a multitude of the nation’s churches, temples, and mosques forming local interfaith coalitions to recruit and train volunteers, many of them elderly themselves, to serve the needs of people with serious disability and with inadequate social support, and in so doing fulfill their spiritual destiny. The world’s great religions all call upon their adherents to give succor to the helpless.
In our programs, volunteers handled a person’s mail, saw that checks went to the bank, that utility bills were paid, and that there was enough food in the refrigerator. The volunteers came alive with a simple task like driving an elderly person to a doctor’s office, doing minor repairs to steps and banisters, or changing a light bulb.
The elderly care receivers experienced a reprieve from their sense of abandonment and worthlessness. Their sense of dignity was restored. They could get a hot bath. Their hair and clothes were in good order. They were somebody because somebody showed concern for their well-being.
One caregiver wrote me once that before he became a volunteer he spent his day keeping busy doing things like visiting with his grandchildren. He was content to do so, but since becoming a volunteer, he said, he felt “special” because now “someone really depends on me.”
Charlie Simmons was another friend of mine who found new happiness in his advanced age, in little ways. His contributions to society were not great, but they were important. A life-long New Yorker, he moved upstate after a career driving trucks and buses. After his beloved wife, Margie, died, he started to join us for dinner and worship services.
It didn’t take much time for Charlie to feel completely at home. He missed no chance to point people to the peace and happiness he’d found in his simple and childlike faith, and he noticed when someone else was having a bad day. He would often claim that he kept a low profile, but would say it with a laugh, since he knew that it couldn’t be further from the truth: standing over six feet tall, he preferred to shout everything from the rooftops, and he could not stand it when people whispered. He liked to loudly tell people, “You sing well,” or “You’re looking good for your age,” or “I think you’ve lost weight!”
He loved to tell a good story, like about the time he ate thirty-four pancakes in a competition and had to “unload” them behind a tree on the way home (which he claimed is growing incredibly well as a result), or about the time he fell asleep during collection at church and they took his check out of his pocket anyway. But he was at his best when he was reaching out to others, bringing flowers – or ice cream or local apples – for a birthday or anniversary.
Charlie had a deep love for Jesus and was never afraid to witness to this. In our church services he always responded with a strong “Amen” when someone was preaching. And whenever we’d sing a hymn, invariably a loud “Praise God!” would follow the last stanza.
Charlie showed me how simple it can be to combat loneliness and depression. The possibilities are endless. Is there a child near you that needs one-on-one time with an adult? Invite him over to play a game, help him with school work, or read him a story. An elderly neighbor may need someone to accompany her to an appointment – or she may just need remembering with a card on her birthday.
If we look at what we can give to others, rather than our limitations, we will find the purpose in life we so desperately need, and our loneliness will evaporate.
Johann Christoph Arnold is the author of Rich in Years, from which this essay is adapted. Get his book.