Holding her great-great-granddaughter Harper Hall, a toddler, on her lap, Dorothy Harrison, age 102, sings lyrics from her favorite hymn: “If it wasn’t for the Lord, what would I do? He’s everything to me.”
The centenarian gave birth to 14 children on a family farm, rarely having a moment alone until her husband died in 1998. Then a decade ago, she moved in with her daughter Rosa Mattress, becoming part of a household that includes an in-home day care center. Harrison receives daily help from a certified nursing aide, and Meals on Wheels volunteers greet her weekdays with a hot lunch. Preschoolers, including a couple of Harrison’s own grands, bustle around, sit on her lap and create the sort of noise and mayhem that leaves little time for loneliness – even during the holidays.
But her experience is unique. For many elderly people, including some of the more than 20,000 Greenville County seniors who live alone, the holiday season is a reminder that most of their friends, family and neighbors are busy, and they are forgotten, says Andrea Smith, executive director of Senior Action.
The people Senior Action serves are active, able to attend classes and concerts. They’re not neglected, although their loneliness during the holidays often goes unnoticed by family and friends, who assume they are okay, Smith says.
“It breaks my heart, but a lot of them don’t decorate their homes anymore because they say it’s not worth the trouble,” Smith says.
A lonely season
The holiday season is one of the loneliest times for the homebound seniors who receive daily visits from Meals on Wheels, says Catriona Carlisle, executive director of Meals on Wheels.
“The holidays truly are a special time where families and friends get together to sit down and have a meal around the table in celebration of the holiday, and many of our clients don’t have that experience,” Carlisle says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to not share in the excitement and gifts and blessings that family and friends bring to the holiday.”
“Older people in general feel loneliness more during the holidays, because they tend to be more physically and socially isolated,” says Sharon M. Holder, an embedded research scientist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Greenville Health System. Holder is also a research assistant professor in the department of public health sciences at Clemson University.
Loneliness predicts other problems. Older people who are socially isolated sometimes lose their ability to drive, shop and get out into their community. This can lead to depression and medical complications, Holder says.
“The holidays are when you have memories of siblings you were close to, but you’ve lost your siblings. You’ve lost your colleagues and friends. There are signs of fatigue and sadness,” she explains.
‘No time for sadness’
Sandy Cogen, 78, offers a practical solution to this type of escalating loneliness: “I don’t stay home too often. I’m out during the day.”
Cogen, a widow for the past 15 years, is an artist and retired teacher, so when she moved to Greenville County seven years ago to be closer to family, she quickly became involved with the community through her art. She teaches art at the Simpsonville Community Center, and she makes hand-painted bookmarks for the Bon Secours St. Francis mobile mammography coach’s patients. So far, she’s given away 33,300 bookmarks.
Cogen also joined LifeWise, a BSSF health program for seniors, and she founded the Simpsonville Harmony Garden, located at Curtis and Academy streets, behind the police department. Twice weekly, Cogen volunteers for the Greenville County Library System, sorting books for sale at the Merovan Center. Through her volunteer activities, Cogen has made a number of friends, including people with whom she can travel and go out to dinner.
“I don’t have time for sadness,” Cogen says. “There are moments of sadness, of course. My husband and I thought we’d grow old together, and it didn’t happen. At times, I go to Publix and see cookies I used to buy for him, and it catches me, but I can’t let it overwhelm me.”
With her daughter, a grandson and a brother living in Greenville, Cogen has family with whom she can spend holiday celebrations. And she’ll invite a friend, who also lives alone, to her family’s Hanukkah events.
“I have friends and acquaintances who have never escaped the loss of a spouse, but I won’t allow it,” Cogen says. “If I allow sadness and gloom in, I would have a list of things that would really unhinge me.”
For people who are less certain of their hobbies and interests, the LifeWise program and Senior Action might be good places to make new friends.
“We promote physical, emotional and spiritual awareness,” says Kathleen Bitsura, LifeWise coordinator.
“We understand that as people age and are out of the workplace, they might move to a new area to be close to their grandchildren, and they need opportunities for connections with other seniors,” Bitsura says.
The nonprofit Senior Action serves holiday dinners the days before Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days and has many cultural, exercise and social activities at nine locations across the county, Smith says.
Also, neighbors and friends can be a big help to seniors who live alone. For instance, George Wright, who lives alone in an apartment in the North Main Street area, has never been married and is estranged from his family. So Thanksgiving week was not going to be a special time for him until he ran into a friend who offered to take him out to breakfast the day after Thanksgiving Day.
“It was wonderful,” Wright says. “I feel lucky to have a good friend.”
Wright also staves off loneliness through reading his Bible and playing the guitar. Although he is disabled and has a poverty-level income, he can pray, play and listen to music and read, Wright says.
Generations of giving
Dorothy Harrison or “Miss Dottie,” as Rosa Mattress calls her mother, has lived her 102 years in a way that would appear to be an antidote to becoming an “elder orphan.” For one thing, she has 14 children who live in Greenville County, none too far from Miss Dottie’s home. Also, she has 44 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and 11 great-great-grandchildren.
The family of more than 150, including spouses, will spend Christmas together with a potluck dinner, an indoor-outdoor celebration at the home of one of Rosa’s brothers. The centenarian matriarch will be the center of attention as she surveys her enormous family from her perch in a wheelchair.
The Harrison family’s close-knit ties date back to their growing up in an old farmhouse with two indoor kitchens, but no bathrooms, and one bedroom for the girls and one for the boys. The family raised farm animals, planted crops and a kitchen garden and cleaned and worked together — and no one worked as hard as their mother. Their father, a Baptist preacher, often traveled, and Miss Dottie kept the farm running.
But it was Dorothy Harrison’s philosophy of including lonely neighbors and other less fortunate people that has stuck with the daughter who now cares for her mother in her own home.
“When we were kids, there was a less fortunate neighbor who didn’t have a wife and didn’t have much, and while we didn’t have much either, Mom would always cook for us and have us give him a plate,” Mattress recalls. “She supplied hot meals for Mr. Owens, and now Meals on Wheels is supplying hot meals for her. Mom always said, ‘Give to the world the best you have, and it will return to you.’”