For most Australians, Christmas is a time of celebration and togetherness.
But for thousands of elderly people across the country, the festive season represents loneliness and isolation.
And it is not a trend exclusive to this part of the world.
Research suggests as many as 450,000 elderly people in the United Kingdom will spend Christmas by themselves this year.
Tull Roseby, owner and manager of Absolute Care Health, a Melbourne-based organisation which provides at-home care for elderly people, said the number of people seeking care over the festive season had increased.
“It’s certainly up,” he says.
“We’ve got a number of clients who don’t have families in Australia or in Melbourne. They’ve moved away and not always easy to get to them.
“It puts an enormous amount of pressure on family members.”
He says the “sandwich generation” – people with young children and elderly parents – were often conflicted over how to spend Christmas.
“What we’re finding is that there’s a lot of guilt around families wanting to go away.”
‘Just another day’
But for Sydney business coach Ingrid Thompson, whose mother Bette has spent the last four Christmases away from family, there is no guilt involved.
“For her and me, it’s just another day,” she says. “It doesn’t mean I love Mum any less.”
After her father died 10 years ago and many members of her extended family also died, Ingrid says it became less necessary to make the trip from Sydney to Brisbane each year.
Bette, an 82-year-old who emigrated from Ireland with her late husband and two daughters in the 1960s, spends Christmas Day with neighbouring friends, but would happily be alone.
“She says she would be very happy to sit and play nice music and drink a glass of sherry, but no way will anyone let her be alone,” Ingrid says.
But does the likelihood of elderly people experiencing isolation and loneliness differ depending on cultural background?
Tran Nguyen Ngoc Le – known as “Jenny” – who works with elderly people in her role with the Vietnamese Community in Australia organisation, says three generations of family members often live together in the Vietnamese homes.
“I’ve been working with elderly for a few years and found that the majority are staying with their children regardless of their financial or health issues,” she says.
But even this model has its flaws.
“The generations have different views and expectations of life, especially when they are living in a modern western country like Australia,” she says.
“Conflict also arises because the adult children don’t have much time to care for their parents.
“Fighting with feelings of loneliness and isolation is a big battle for almost all elderly people, regardless of their background.”
While many Vietnamese people are Buddhists and do not celebrate Christmas, Ms Le says families always gathered for special occasions .
“It is not culturally acceptable to leave an elderly family member alone during the Christmas season as our Vietnamese New Year usually falls in this season,” she says.
Bridging the gap
A number of community organisations are working to assist elderly people over the festive season and prevent the onset of depression.
Deputy CEO of the Salvation Army’s Aged Care Plus Support Services, Maryann Curry, says the community events offered by the charity were drawing increasing numbers each year.
And new ideas are emerging through social media.
Andrew Dowling is the brains behind Tapestry, a recently launched application for smartphones, tablets and the web, which aims to connect elderly people with their families.
Using the application, older people can view Facebook images of their grandchildren without being a Facebook user.
They can also send messages and access other services.
Mr Dowling says there had been a spike in users in the US at Thanksgiving and he expected a similar spike this Christmas.
He says the issue of social isolation was one that needed to be addressed.
“It’s a bigger epidemic, in terms of its health impact, than obesity.”
For many older people, the festive season is a particularly emotional time because they tend to look back on a period of their lives when they were building their own families.
Physical limitations are also common and may confine people indoors for much of their days.
But Maryann Curry says we can all take small steps toward addressing the problem, such as checking in with a neighbour.
“Be mindful that right next door there may be someone living alone who is quite lonely,” she says.
“If you make contact with them, you’ll soon find out if they are on their own. It might just prompt you to pop around and say, ‘Happy Christmas’.
“That’s the spirit of Christmas, making contact.
“It’s far more powerful than buying a gift.”