BANGOR, Maine — Dave Hamel was fiddling Friday afternoon with the cords and plugs for the video game “Rock Band,” while Laura Garland watched with the rest of the people in her Hammond Street apartment, teasing Hamel when he was unable to make the game work.
The lights on Garland’s Christmas tree twinkled on and off, and opened presents were lying underneath the tree.
“MC Hamel, are you going to play drums?” Garland asked as Hamel continued to fiddle with the wires.
“[Oh] yeah, I am,” he said.
Hamel was without his 8-year-old daughter, Grace, for Christmas this year. Garland’s 13-year-old daughter, Brittney, was with her dad, and Garland’s boyfriend was working.
That meant Hamel, 33, and Garland, 34, who have been buddies since their Bangor High School days, were both alone for Christmas Day. But with eight other friends in the apartment for a party co-hosted by Hamel and Garland, it didn’t feel that way. Most of the friends may have been single, but they weren’t alone on one of the most family-oriented days of the year.
The two threw a “Christmas Day Lonely Peeps Party” (“peeps” is short for people) and via the social networking site Facebook invited 80 people, most of whom were single or divorced and without their kids, or had a significant other who wasn’t home for the day.
“This is my first Christmas being divorced, and I was extremely concerned about being alone,” Garland said as a Celtics game blared in the next room. “That’s where we went with [the party], and I think this could be an annual event now.”
Beer and dirty jokes flowed liberally, and the group laughed along with Hamel when he realized he had made a simple mistake in setting up the video game. Their children weren’t there, but there was no shortage of kidding.
Len Kaye, a University of Maine professor of social work and the director of the UM Center on Aging, said loneliness at the holidays is an issue that affects many people. This time of year is like a “triple whammy,” he said, for those who are alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Senior citizens and the elderly are especially vulnerable to depression and loneliness at this time of the year, Kaye said, because the assumption is that the holidays are a time to visit with family and friends, exchange gifts and see grandchildren. It’s not the case for everyone in the 65-and-over age group, however.
“For some elders, it’s a time that sort of serves to emphasize what has changed in their lives and underscores the fact that they’ve experienced losses,” Kaye said. “The folks who have been with them in the past are no longer there — they have a deceased spouse, or children who have moved out and live far away, or grandchildren who live at a distance.”
In fact, Kaye said, older adults have the highest suicide rates of any age group, and when older adults do attempt suicide they’re more successful at it than any age group.
The highest rates in the 65-and-over age group are among white men, Kaye added.
“They tend to be individuals who have not established strong social networks. They were married to their jobs and their lives are suddenly empty when they leave the workplace,” he said. “It’s a minority of older adults, but it’s a reminder at this time of year to call, check in, be in touch with someone who you know is alone.”
Kaye said one of the keys for senior citizens to avoid loneliness at the holidays is to strengthen and maintain social ties throughout the year. Although Friday’s Lonely Peeps crowd was mostly in the 20- and 30-year-old age groups, Kaye’s advice for avoiding loneliness at the holidays can be taken by anyone.
“It’s all about staying active and engaged. Volunteering and offering to help others during these times can also serve as good, preventive medicine,” he said. “Older adults should realize the importance of maintaining a strong social network they can turn to, confidants they’ve developed, close friends who are loyal, because you’ll be part of their lives.”
Garland and Hamel said they feel that way about each other, especially this year as Garland went through her divorce.
“He’s somebody I talk to almost every day and someone I know will always be there,” Garland said as Hamel stood by. “I think this past year especially — I have a thing for Halloween and we did that together, and we’ll probably do New Year’s, too.”
“I’ve been a third wheel many times,” Hamel said with a smile.
Hamel’s brother Kevin, who lives in Old Town, is also divorced and was without his 11-year-old son and his 7-year-old daughter on Friday. Kevin Hamel said he usually seems to find something to do on Christmases without his kids, but nothing planned in advance the way the “Lonely Peeps” party was.
“When you’re divorced, it’s always somebody’s turn to take the kids and you’re not doing anything,” said Kevin Hamel, who sang vocals on the “Rock Band” version of the Billy Idol song “White Wedding” after his brother finally got the game going. “All these friends, it’s like an extension of family. It’s nice that somebody finally took the reins to do something like this.”