Older, isolated and home alone during the holidays

Black Mountain News

Billie Riddell doesn’t get out much. She doesn’t have a car any more. The 67-year-old Swannanoa resident gets Meals on Wheels. But otherwise, she sees people only about twice a week.

Photos of family keeping her company, Billie Riddell looks at her front door, one that sees few visitors.

Riddell is a member of a growing demographic, a so-called “elder orphan” whose don’t have much contact with people. As Baby Boomers age, their high divorce rate and low rates of producing children are coming back to haunt them. Especially around the holidays, living alone in your later years can bring about sadness and depression.

“If you see your community celebrating and you don’t have an opportunity to participate, you can start to feel less important,” said Wendy Marsh, executive director of the Council on Aging of Buncombe County. “Isolation and depression are two of the biggest risks that people that live alone face as they age.”

Nearly a quarter of Black Mountain residents are seniors, and a third of them lived alone in 2010, according to U.S. Census done that year. Of those 593 people, three quarters were women. A third of the town’s residents 60 or older received food stamps last year, and a quarter of their households has less than $20,000 in income, the Census data indicates. Like Riddell, two thirds don’t have access to a car.

All that data is cited by SeniorCare.com, a website by the SeniorCare.com Aging Council, a group of professionals who “address key topics facing the senior population,” according to the website.

“Any time you become depressed or you feel mentally or physically disconnected, that can put you at risk of major injury like falling,” said Carol Marak, editor of SeniorCare.com. Sixty-five years old and living alone, she resides in the suburbs of Waco, Texas and doesn’t like to drive at night. That limits and isolates her, she said, giving her a sense of what people like Riddell deal with.

Despite her limited social opportunities, Riddell is never lonely, she said. Loneliness is a state of mind, she said, and not one she frequents, despite having lost her son, her mother and her uncle all around the holiday season. Nonetheless, this time of year brings on melancholy.

Things Billie Riddell is grateful for - a warm home, her dog Pooh and Meals on Wheels, which provides some company.

“I get very sad around the holidays,” Riddell said last week in raspy voice, cigarette smoke permeating the air of her small house in Swannanoa. She sat in a covered chair, surrounded by the Chinese and Japanese art that her mother had taken a liking to many years ago.  “Everybody’s with family,” she said. “You hear about family coming home. I remember my son coming home from college. Sometimes he would bring a friend with him. It was a wonderful time of year.”

An only child who has a couple of cousins nearby, the West Asheville native has lived in her Swannanoa house for almost eight years. The government helps her with the rent, and she’s grateful, having been made homeless when her uncle died nine years ago and she had to leave his subsidized senior apartment in Asheville. She remembers that time, driving around at Christmas time, looking at other people’s lights. “There’s nothing to do at Christmas unless you have a family,” she said.

Riddell doesn’t allow herself to get depressed, she said. But it happens anyway, especially during the holidays. “It comes up in waves,” she said matter-of-factly. She remembers the “tipsy cake” and the Santa cookies her mother baked at Christmas. She misses shopping for her son.

“It gets lonely at times,” she said. But she can stay up late with the TV and a cup of cocoa and not worry about disturbing anyone.

“Loneliness is a big issue for older adults,” Marsh said, and the holidays can increase their sense of isolation. “That can be hard to combat if you don’t have someone to talk to,” she said.

The Council on Aging of Buncombe County (coabc.org) provides services to “a lot” of homebound older adults “who are pretty isolated,” Marsh said. It matches vetted volunteers with some of its elderly clients, providing them with an hour or so of conversation periodically. Once a month, the council provides food deliveries for clients who can’t get out to grocery shop.

It sponsors four senior center dining sites in Buncombe County. One of them is at Lakeview Center for Active Aging in Black Mountain. Seniors come for meals catered by Moose Café as well as conversation, exercise and activities (some four dozen people show up every day Monday through Friday, Marsh said). Before lunch Jan. 9, the council on aging will explain the services it offers to diners.

The council’s “Call A Ride” program helps seniors go to doctor offices, grocery stores and elsewhere. Its in-home aide program helps people with housekeeping and cooking and provides some conversation, Marsh said.

Once a month one of Riddell’s cousins comes to take her to grocery shopping. An assistant pastor used to stop by. Riddell sees her neighbors occasionally, but one of them, a man she knew for years, just died. A couple of times a week, she talks to a girlfriend she’s known since high school. They try to get together once a month with some other friends to eat out, but that’s often too expensive for Riddell, so she stays home.

The loneliness, such that she feels, is worse after supper when all her busyness – her cleaning the house, organizing closets, sweeping the porch – is over for the day. Then it’s just her and her dog Pooh and her two birds in their cage.

“I just sit down and let myself think about it,” she said of the emptiness. “All in all, living by yourself is all in your mind.”

Check on your neighbors

Prevent a senior from being alone by visiting on occasion. Contact Council on Aging of Buncombe County (277-8288) if you’re concerned about an elderly person who lives alone. It will contact the person to see if they want help. Also, visit seniorcare.com for other local contacts.