Before the COVID-19 pandemic, between 30 and 40 percent of older adults were already experiencing consequences of isolation and loneliness. It will be months, maybe years, before we understand the full effects of physical distancing on the general population.
Mental health experts are already weighing the potential mental and emotional trauma social isolation causes. And at the top of this list? Older adults who are particularly vulnerable to serious illness from the virus and therefore are experiencing even more isolation as society races to keep them safe.
We’ve heard the statistics repeatedly: The adverse effects of loneliness equate to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness increases the risk of suicide and elevates blood pressure. It destroys sleep and raises stress levels. It slowly and systemically wears us down. Why? Because humans are built for social interaction. We need friendship and companionship! We are at our best when we’re with others.
If you wish to hug your friends and family members right now, you’re not alone. Human beings are also wired to need touch. According to psychcentral.com:
“Human touch is a basic human need just as much as food and water; without it humans simply cannot thrive.”
While we’re longing to reach out and touch someone, we’re being told to wash our hands incessantly, don masks and stand at least 6 feet (but preferably farther) apart. Public health and government officials have also told us to stay away from older adults altogether. Drop off groceries and prescriptions for Mom and Dad outside their front door. Send them cards and adult coloring books. But whatever you do, please don’t get too close. It’s not worth the risk.
Zoom, FaceTime and Skype – Oh My!
So, how can we meet such a fundamental need when we’re advised not to do so for our own health and that of our loved ones and neighbors? What can we do to combat loneliness? For anyone lucky enough to live with others, the answer to the first question is simple. Take advantage of this time together and hug your loved ones. Those of us who are truly alone have to be a little more creative.
That might mean stretching out of your comfort zone and using technology to stay in touch with others. Video messaging apps like Zoom, FaceTime and Skype are enjoying unprecedented use during the global pandemic because they are free and easy to use. If you currently communicate through text, you might have to pick up the phone to hear a friend or family member’s voice. Perhaps, you’ll even need to dust off your stationery and ink pens and write an old-fashioned letter. It may require more effort to reach out, but when life settles into a new normal, those efforts will pay off.
UCH at Work
At United Church Homes, we’ve been sharing our efforts to combat isolation and loneliness through social media and blog posts. For starters, we’ve employed virtual visitor guides at each community to connect residents with their families and friends online until they can visit in person once again. Our communities have found ways to make dining solo fun and for residents to engage in games and other activities (origami anyone?), despite physical distancing. They have experienced meaningful interaction, and joy, even while missing family and friends.
One of United Church Homes’ favorite resources, the Pioneer Network, offers a number of resources for preventing isolation, indexed as the ABCs of Combating Loneliness. Another excellent resource is AARP, which offers plenty of advice to older adults to stay connected. This is also a time for giving back. Share your talents with others – knitting, sewing, writing, drawing, acting, etc. Take the opportunity to ease another person’s loneliness.
What could possibly be better than that?