An elderly Oslo woman’s blunt appeal for someone to eat dinner with on Christmas Eve fired up a national campaign to ward off loneliness during the holidays. Reidun Synnøve Orest, age 88, now isn’t the only one who’s been invited home to persons who had been perfect strangers.
Orest’s ad in Oslo newspaper Aften late last month attracted enormous attention, not just in Oslo but nationwide after Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) and most other major media picked up the story first carried in Aften. Orest’s appeal also was the buzz on social media sites, and the Norwegian Red Cross suddenly got a flood of interest in a campaign against loneliness that already was underway.
“We’ve registered many calls from folks who want to engage themselves in our work to match volunteers with people in need,” Åsne Havnelid, secretary general of the Norwegian Red Cross, told news bureau NTB over the weekend.
Several hundred people have signed up for duty in recent weeks, and counties all over Norway are reporting brisk recruitment to their volunteer programs. The Red Cross now has more than 6,000 besøksvenner, volunteers who simply visit young, old and lonely people either at their homes or in institutions.
A survey conducted by survey firm InFact for newspaper VG indicated that more than 100,000 Norwegians would be alone over the holiday period that runs through New Year’s Day. That only amounts to around 3 percent of the population, but it’s still a lot of people who may be lonely and would prefer to have some company.
In Orest’s case, she was aware of various programs offered for senior citizens at neighbourhood centers around the country and in her own area. Orest, a widow whose son died recently as well, wanted to spend Christmas Eve itself, though, with a family, around a table with good food and in a private home instead of a public institution. In Norway, the main holiday celebration occurs on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.
She even offered to “pay well” for someone to invite her home on what many Norwegians consider the most special evening of the year. Her ad prompted dozens of serious replies from persons more than willing to do so, and rejecting any notion of payment at the same time.
Orest ended up with a new challenge: Having to choose from all the invitations that amounted to more than 100 by December 1 with people were still calling. “That’s quite outstanding, I think,” she told newspaper Aftenposten after she’d made her choice. One of the invitations even came from Thailand.
She settled on what she called “a completely delightful family” living close to her apartment in Oslo’s Grünerløkka area. “I’ve met them already, a very nice couple with children and dogs,” Orest told Aftenposten. “They were so sweet and friendly and we got along very well. Just a great family and I’m really looking forward to being with them on Christmas Eve.”
The newspaper itself joined the Oslo Red Cross’ appeal for volunteers, as did others like VG, and at one point, the local chapter almost had more volunteers and families offering space around their Christmas dinner tables than the Red Cross had of lonely people seeking contact.
“It’s not just Reidun (Orest) who is being invited during Christmas,” said Stine Pernille Hauge Kjos of the Oslo Red Cross volunteer program. “Many people have called and said they have empty chairs around their tables, or would gladly visit someone who needs company in their own homes.
Fending off shame
Orest was surprised by the response to her ad, which also elicited deliveries of flowers from people she doesn’t know. She thought it would be answered “by another retired person, or someone like me.” She thinks the response shows that Oslo residents are much warmer and more hospitable than many think, “it’s just that sometimes they may be embarrassed to show it.”
She also thinks there are many lonely people who also are embarrassed and hesitate to reach out for help. Red Cross officials agree, but one local woman stressed that some people prefer to be alone, also at Christmas, and that must also be respected.
“It can’t be assumed that all single people are ashamed of being alone, also during Christmas,” Agnes Husbyn, former secretary general of Ensliges Landsforbund, a national organization representing single people, wrote in a letter to Aftenposten. “Is it really so terrible to be home alone on Christmas Eve?” She doesn’t think so, and cautioned that a family Christmas Eve isn’t necessarily idyllic either.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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