Making the Connections
Tomorrow I will help my mum take down her Christmas cards and look through them. She always has to check that everyone who has sent her a card has also received one from her. She wants to do this even though she can no longer remember who most people are - we have to do things properly! As someone with mild Alzheimer’s who was widowed in the last two years and moved to a care home, the whole Christmas card thing can be a challenging exercise. Writing them reminded her of losing my dad when she signed them with one signature. Receiving them with only her name on them is a double whammy of singleness. However, as I look at the ones she has received with her, it is an opportunity to remind her of people who have been significant in her life and to give her a chance to talk about what she does remember about them. These anecdotes are important for me as I store away fragments of information to act as memory prompts at a later date. Mum’s connections are diminishing. The physical connections in her brain are covered in plaque that reduces their functioning. Her social connections are reducing as people of her age die and as she forgets the names of people who visit her. What does remain true is that she loves a visitor, no matter who they are.
Increasingly we are becoming aware of the importance of social connectedness. I suspect that instinctively many of us know that to be true but some scientists are now claiming that social connectedness is a greater determinant to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.[i] When we think about improving health we often think about reducing smoking and obesity but not about improving social connection, and yet it is well documented that those with poor social connections are likely to be more anxious or depressed. This can then extend to the cellular level by causing more inflammation and physical illness. Being well connected is crucial to our well-being and happiness. For some, this means having a few strong and significant connections and for others it means having many connections.
Christmas is a time that throws this connectedness into sharp focus. In ALTERnativity, work we have done has shown that, for some people, the social aspect of Christmas is very challenging. This can be when you don’t have the people there with whom you would like to socialise or, even worse, when you are forced to socialise with people you would rather not be with! Loneliness at Christmas can be very acute. One of the signs of a healthy church is its degree of social connectedness. People look to the church for support in times of difficulty and an aware church will be alert to the wider community in times of difficulty. However, Christmas Day is frequently a day when many churches are curiously closed. There may be a morning service or mass and then the doors are closed. This Christmas was on a Sunday. How many people in our parishes who are on their own, or who are not on their own but find Christmas difficult, were wishing that there were people to spend Christmas Day with? It’s a challenge we in ALTERnativity have tried to come up with some useful suggestions for. Christmas could provide an opportunity for making new connections in our community or strengthening the ones already there.
This Christmas mum was with us. It’s a context she understands and it makes her feel secure. It’s evident from our interaction with her that having company improves her physical and mental health. Headaches miraculously disappear with a chat and a cup of coffee. This Christmas she was happy as she connected with family and friends, even though by the time she got home she had forgotten what day it was. The connecting moment was important at the time.
Eildon Dyer is the Chair of ALTERnativity.