Cable Car Caroling Fosters Holiday Human Connection to Benefit Friendship Line

Holidays were the hardest for her. At 87 years old, Elma, who lived independently in her own small apartment in San Francisco, spent most of her days alone—even Christmas day. When she was younger, Christmas was her favorite time of year, and her happiest memories were of huddling around the tree with her two boys and husband on Christmas morning, singing carols and opening gifts.

But since the passing of her husband five years ago, Elma’s children hadn’t made the trip across the country to come see her over the holidays. And so, the prospect of Christmas was no longer merry and bright, but lonely and dark—until the day the carolers came.

One knock at the door and she knew it was them. Excitedly, she shuffled to the door to let them in. A crowd of kind-eyed people slowly swelled into her tiny apartment, spilling into every room and even out into the hallway of her building. At once, they all began to sing Silver Bells, her all-time favorite Christmas song, and a smile spread across her lips as her eyes filled with tears.

Seeing this, a little boy in a red and white Santa hat reached for her hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. His hand felt just like her son’s Jake’s had at that age—soft, warm, and familiar. For the next 10 minutes, as she listened to the carolers sing, she held the little boy’s hand and completely forgot what it felt like to be lonely.

It’s sometimes too easy to forget that Christmas isn’t a happy time for everyone. In fact, for many aging adults and adults with disabilities in San Francisco, the holidays can be an incredibly tough time of year. So, in hopes of spreading holiday cheer to the folks who need it most, Institute on Aging (IOA) is gearing up for our annual Cable Car Caroling event.

The inclusive event, now in its 33rd year, brings festive music—from Christmas carols to traditional Hanukkah songs to Hispanic music—to those residing in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and in their own homes throughout the city of San Francisco. And as you can imagine, there’s nothing like a crowd of caroling folks to spark joy in even the loneliest of hearts.

The Aim of Cable Car Caroling

This year, on December 2, more than 500 carolers are set to pile into 15 motorized cable cars and travel to several locations around the city, making nearly 60 stops to sing festive songs and connect with aging adults. In years past, the event has been a sellout, and this year will likely be the same. After all, it’s fun, it’s festive, and there is immediate gratification that comes with singing jolly tunes and spreading joy in person during the holidays to those who need it most.

Proceeds from ticket purchases for the event go toward IOA’s Friendship Line, a 24-hour suicide hotline for aging adults and adults living with disabilities. Not only is the Friendship Line the nation’s only suicide hotline for aging adults, it’s also a warm line, meaning it’s not just for urgent crisis intervention, but it also takes non-urgent calls. Any aging adult or adult living with a disability in need of emotional support can call it. In fact, several studies have shown that aging adults without social interaction are twice as likely to die prematurely. The Friendship Line is one way to help prevent that.

We have seen calls from lonely, isolated seniors to our Friendship Line steadily increasing. We now handle over 156,000 calls a year, and this number continues to increase. Trained volunteer staff who answer the calls not only talk with callers to provide support and counsel, they also refer callers to the resources they need, such as doctors in their area. Staff also do callbacks to check up on people to make sure they are okay, providing a sense of connection and caring that these individuals may not otherwise experience in their daily lives.  

It is the transformative power of real human connection that is at the core of the Cable Car Caroling event and the Friendship Line—a concept that is incredibly important to Dr. Patrick Arbore, founder of both programs and honoree of this year’s festive event. And it is this concept of connection that underlies all of IOA’s services and events for aging adults and adults with disabilities.

The Heartwarming Impact of Human-to-Human Contact

It is indeed the power of human connection that can bring immense happiness during a time of year that can trigger feelings of loneliness and sadness for some. For many aging adults and adults with disabilities, like Elma, being serenaded by carolers is the only bit of holiday celebration they experience. In fact, it is such an anticipated event that some participating assisted living facilities and nursing homes even plan to have their holiday party when the carolers come.

Through the gift of song and human connection, carolers of all ages brighten the holidays for more than 1,000 aging adults and adults living with disabilities each holiday season with their warm spirits and their melodic voices. But there are benefits, of course, on both sides. Cable Car Caroling gives participants a unique opportunity to give back in a way that is real, visceral, and personal.

At the end of a day of singing, visiting seniors and driving around the streets of San Francisco, the cable cars filled with carolers will return to IOA, where they will convene for a shared meal and a short program. It’s a chance for everyone to share stories of the real connections they experienced throughout the day. And human connection, after all, is truly what the holidays are all about.

To Participate in Cable Car Caroling:

Individuals who are interested in joining IOA in the Cable Car Caroling festivities can easily purchase a ticket online. To participate in our Cable Car Caroling Challenge to raise money for the cause in exchange for tickets, we ask that you complete an online form and record any pledges or donations. For businesses interested in sponsoring the event and getting your employees involved, contact Corinne Knudtson at cknudtson@ioaging.org.

At Institute on Aging, our programs and special events aim to help older adults and adults with disabilities feel more connected—during the holidays and all year long. Connect with us today to learn more about Cable Car Caroling or our other services.

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Institute on Aging

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