As a youngster I loved Christmas. I thought everyone did. But when I was 15, a frail, old woman in a wheelchair punched a big hole in my naïve assumptions about “the most wonderful time of the year.”
I was volunteering at the Little Sisters’ home for the elderly, along with a couple of other girls. We were helping the infirm residents write Christmas cards. Everything was going well until I approached an old woman named Mae.
In my eyes Mae was a celebrity. She had been an expert milliner in an era when well-dressed women always wore hats. My grandmother owned a couple of Mae’s creations. Just as I had done with the other residents, I asked Mae if I could help her write Christmas cards for her family.
Looking beyond me, with profound sadness in her voice, Mae replied, “Christmas means nothing to me. All my family is gone; I have no one left; I don’t even have anyone to send a card to.”
I was stunned. How could anyone be unhappy at Christmas? I still remember the impact of that moment. As awkward as it was, my conversation with Mae helped to awaken my calling to be a Little Sister of the Poor. I had suddenly been exposed to the sorrow that can accompany old age, and I wanted to do something about it. That desire is what still drives me today, after 25 years of religious life. As our foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan so often said, it’s all about making the elderly happy—even when the sorrows of life weigh on them and happiness seems like a lost treasure from a bygone era.
Financial difficulties, family issues, grief over the loss of loved ones—these factors can make the holidays a stressful time. But Christmas can be especially sad for older persons whose families live far away or for those—like Mae—who have outlived their loved ones, or for those who have been forced to give up the comforts of home to enter a long-term care facility. For many, being home for Christmas is, as the song goes, only in their dreams.
But there is a gift that the rest of us can give. If you have an elderly relative, friend or neighbor to whom you usually send a card or gift, this year give them the gift of yourself instead. Plan on spending some quality time with them around the holidays.
Bring them something homemade; share your kids’ latest photos or artwork. Tell them about your personal struggles and ask them how they handled similar challenges in their day. If they are able to get out, offer to take them to church. Even better, make room for them at your holiday table.
You won’t regret this gift of yourself to another. You might actually be surprised at how much you receive in return—a valuable bit of wisdom, a childhood memory rekindled, a tip on how to bake a better pie, or perhaps a word of faith and encouragement to lift your own spirits during a dark time.
In November Pope Benedict XVI visited a home for the elderly in Rome. He encouraged the seniors never to let themselves be imprisoned by sorrow. “At every phase of life, it is necessary to be able to discover the presence and blessing of the Lord and the riches they bring,” he told them. “Living is beautiful even at our age…In our faces may there always be the joy of feeling loved by God and not sadness.”
Turning to the younger people in the assembly, the pope said, “The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life.” This Christmas, why not give an elderly person the place of honor at your Christmas celebration?
Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, L.S.P., is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States.