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It’s one of the many cruel ironies of the COVID-19 pandemic: The elderly, who most urgently need to isolate themselves, are also the most vulnerable to the unhealthy consequences of an isolated life.

A 2019 University of Michigan poll found that one in four older Americans reported feeling isolated at least some of the time, and one in three said they lacked regular companionship. Those numbers have no doubt spiked in recent weeks, threatening to saddle a wide swath of housebound seniors with anxiety, malnutrition, dementia, insomnia, substance abuse, and other well-documented products of a lonely life.

“Loneliness creates a kind of toxic chain reaction in our body: It produces stress, and the chronic release of stress hormones suppresses our immune response and triggers inflammation,” Amanda Ripley writes in The Washington Post. “And the elderly, who are most at-risk of dying from COVID-19, are more likely to say they are lonely.”

But Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why, says housebound older adults don’t have to surrender to their isolation. She suggests five strategies they can employ to stay connected — and ease their anxiety — during their confinement:

• Move your body. Physical exercise lowers stress levels and improves immune function. Even moderate activities (think walking and bicycling) can lift your mood while maintaining a safe social distance from others.

• Make some phone calls. “The phone is your lifeline,” Ripley writes. “I’ve set a personal goal to talk (actually talk, not text) with one or two friends, elderly neighbors, or family members by phone every day until this pandemic ends.”

• Practice mindfulness. Whether its meditation, contemplative prayer, or simply a few moments of mindful breathing, focusing on the present moment has been shown to reduce inflammation and boost the immune system.

• Reach out to help others. “Wherever they strike, disasters have a way of revealing our preexisting weaknesses,” Ripley notes. “But they also open up opportunities.” She points to a woman in Ireland who organized 6,000 volunteers via Twitter to pick up and deliver groceries to the elderly and others vulnerable to the virus. These efforts don’t just aid those less fortunate than you; studies have found that volunteering can lower your stress levels.

• Revisit — or discover — a hobby. Take advantage of your time indoors by finding an activity that sparks your creativity and eases your anxiety. A recent survey shows rising interest in crafts such as sewing and crocheting, as well as cognitive challenges like puzzles and online courses. Board games and general tinkering are particularly popular.

And, while Ripley’s suggestions are vital for preventing loneliness among the senior set, people of all ages have been creating new ways to connect. From virtual happy hours, book clubs, game nights, and dinners to old-school letter-writing and across-the-fence conversations with neighbors, folks are reaching out like never before.

Housebound families, too, are finding fresh activities to help them make the most of their time together. Whether it’s working on craft projects, enjoying movie nights, or tending the garden, focusing on fun and satisfying activities rather than fixating on COVID-19 headlines can ease everyone’s anxiety in these uncertain times.

“It’s important to our health, well-being, and stress levels that we don’t confuse the necessary physical distancing with social isolation,” Portland, Ore.–based life coach Sally Anne Carroll told Parade magazine. “We all need each other and maintaining our social connections as much as we can is a must to functioning well through this crisis.”

With our favorite coffee shops closed, my wife and I have instituted a mid-afternoon coffee break to encourage each other to leave our work behind for a half hour each day and chat about anything that’s not in the newspaper. We gather in the kitchen, grind our beans, and brew a couple of cups while marveling at how much artistry is required to create a perfect latté. It’s become a ritual now, a way to connect that we’ll probably miss when life returns to “normal.”

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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