Let’s get one thing out of the way right away: Not everyone who lives alone is lonely. Not everyone who will spend Thanksgiving alone will mind the solitude. Solitude can bring serenity. Family gathering can be torture.
But it’s safe to guess that in this time of pandemic, with its enforced isolation and family separation, more people than ever will be alone on Thanksgiving, and a lot of them would appreciate some human connection.
So today a few tips on how to make that happen, courtesy of a Chicago area group called Make Room @ The Table.
The group’s name sprang from a conversation Marcia Slater Johnston had shortly after her husband died a few years ago. She ran into a friend who asked how her Thanksgiving had been. She replied that she’d spent it alone.
“I know I should have invited you,” she recalls the friend replying, “but there was no room for you at our dining room table.”
The problem this year, of course, isn’t that too many dining tables will be full. It’s that they’ll be nearly empty, as people who made plans to gather make the responsible decision not to. In 2020, making room at the table means something different, which is why Make Room @ The Table came up with its tips.
The group — a loose association of 20 or so people, including aging experts — started meeting this summer to talk about how to solve the problem of isolation, especially, but not exclusively, for the elderly. The problem isn’t new, but the virus has made it newly visible.
“With COVID-19, far more people have experienced loneliness and isolation than ever before,” Johnston says. “It brought it out into the sunlight. People don’t talk about loneliness, but people have started to talk about it because of COVID-19 and the restrictions.”
As Thanksgiving approached, the group members wondered: What could they do besides, in Johnston’s words, “admire the problem”?
In her long life as a journalist, Johnston has learned the value of supplying information in lists. So after the group traded ideas, she created two lists.
One is 16 tips for enjoying a Thanksgiving alone, made with the understanding that only one tip might resonate for any given person.
As Phyllis Mitzen, a social worker who helped found the group, says, “If someone is experiencing a low level of depression or feeling overwhelmed, you can’t say: Go bake something. But there might be something that catches their eye and makes them think, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ “
• Schedule a Zoom meal with friends on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or during the three-day weekend following Thanksgiving. Make that your “holiday celebration.”
• Begin a journal or add to one you already have. Consider starting work on a memoir. Emphasize gratitude and the things in your life for which you are thankful.
• Write a note to people you are thankful are in your life. Or, reach out to them by phone, email or text.
The group’s second list offers tips on how to connect with someone who might be lonely on the holiday.
“The onus is usually on the lonely person,” Johnston said. “They tell people who are lonely to reach out. But if people don’t reach back, you’re still going to be lonely.” The group, she said, wanted to “set up the idea that there is a responsibility people have to make sure people are not lonely.”
Tips on that list include:
• Make room at your table virtually. … If it’s too much of a hassle to include someone who’s alone for an entire Thanksgiving meal, ask them to log onto Zoom and share dessert.
• Leave a plant, homemade goodies or a card at the door of a neighbor you know is alone on Thanksgiving.
• Write “letters of gratitude” to friends you know will be alone. Mail them so they will arrive the day before Thanksgiving but write “Do Not Open Until Thanksgiving” on the envelopes.
Again, the idea isn’t to do all the things on the list. It’s to find one or two that seem doable. The full lists are online here.
It’s tempting to think of this pandemic Thanksgiving as a curse, but it’s also an opportunity to think and act differently. And that, for some people, might mean following tip No. 16 for how to enjoy Thanksgiving alone:
Ignore the holiday and view it as just another day. Stick to your usual routine, take something out of the freezer and chill.