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Alone on Thanksgiving? You’re not alone.

Element5 Digital
Feelings of loneliness are amplified around Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, mental health experts say, but spending time alone is exactly what some people are looking for.

As Sharon Yates cut and plated pumpkin pie slices for a free weekly meal served by Trillium Health at the organization’s Rochester headquarters, she reflected that this one might be especially important. It was the day before Thanksgiving.

“Particularly on a holiday there might be people who don’t have family or friends they can go to, so we try to make this festive and a good occasion for them to be here,” Yates said.

And while that’s good for people who are looking for a hot meal or a communal gathering, not everyone wants to spend Thanksgiving around a crowded table, mental health experts say.

“It’s something that can be very confusing when the broader social conversation and media conversation is, ‘Who are you going to be with on Thanksgiving?’” said Chacku Mathai, CEO of the Mental Health Association of Rochester.

This year, Gwenn Voelkers is set to spend Thanksgiving by herself for the first time. Voelkers, 64, lives in Mendon and said she has spent the last couple decades learning to be alone after getting divorced in her 30s. At first, she said, it wasn’t easy.

“I stepped back from life and just focused on my work, and I stopped socializing,” Voelkers said.

Now, she has learned how to be content, and that being alone doesn’t have to mean being isolated, said Voelkers. This Thanksgiving, she plans to stop in to see some friends and then head home to write thank-you notes.

“It’s a way for me to show my appreciation for the people I love and to let them know that I’m glad they’re in my life,” said Voelkers.

Harry Reis, who teaches psychology at the University of Rochester, had some simple advice for anyone questioning how to help others feel comfortable over the holiday: just ask.

“Extend an invitation,” Reis said. “‘Would you like to come to my house for dinner?’ or, ‘Are you looking for someone to have dinner with?’ And if people say ‘no,’” he said, “Then you should respect that, as opposed to saying, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’”

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