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Social Isolation and the Holidays During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Tamar Cooper and Kerstin Yoder | 12/15/2020

An older adult feeling solemn during the holiday season

Isolation has been a common theme of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the early days, we were encouraged to “socially isolate,” and while doing so is challenging for many of us, it is still considered to be a positive action for the good of our communities.

But social isolation has a negative side, one that has existed long before the pandemic. The lack of meaningful interaction and socialization with others was linked to an increased risk for many conditions including heart disease and high blood pressure by a 2018 AARP Public Policy Institute report. It can be particularly devastating for older adults, who may be further isolated by mobility issues and health conditions.

With the holidays on the horizon, winter blues and social isolation can often combine to pose a serious risk for depression. As caregivers, we need to pay more attention than ever to our older loved ones this year to make sure these difficult times aren’t negatively impacting their mental and emotional wellness. 

“Aren’t feelings of sadness a normal part of aging?”

Many people mistakenly think that persistent feelings of sadness are a natural and normal part of aging, especially this time of year when many people feel stressed and undergo renewed feelings of grief over losses they’ve experienced over the past year. However, depression is not a normal part of aging. Emotional experiences of sadness, grief, loss and temporary “blue” moods are normal, but persistent depression that interferes significantly with the ability to function is not.
We should consult with a loved one’s doctor if he or she has been experiencing the following symptoms on a regular basis of two weeks or more:

  • Nervousness and anxiety
  • Emptiness
  • Worthlessness
  • Lack of enjoyment
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of enthusiasm and motivation
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Sluggishness
  • Chronic pain, including headaches and stomachaches
  • Lack of interest in personal care

“Why is social isolation such a concern this time of year?”

Social isolation and loneliness can be triggered by several factors, which may include:

  • Living alone
  • Health problems and loss of mobility
  • Sensory impairment such as hearing loss
  • Major life events, such as the death of a spouse
  • A drop in communication with family and friends
  • Lack of transportation or ability to get out
  • Loss of sense of purpose
  • Fear of being a burden

In addition to these factors, we have all been coping with one additional factor: the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has asked us to reconsider how we interact with each other, whether it be our families, our neighbors or our larger communities. This is even more pronounced during the holiday season. Not being able to gather in-person during a time when people are yearning for normalcy and connection is tough for all of us, especially if we haven’t seen our family much, if at all, since the pandemic took hold.

Many people with mental health conditions, and even those without, find change difficult, especially during times of stress like the holiday season and the current pandemic. This shift from traditions to the unknown leaves many of us feeling a sense of loss and disappointment. For older adults, this can be particularly difficult, especially if they already feel they have limited time to spend with loved ones.

“What should I do if my loved one is feeling lonely during the holidays?”

Whether our loved ones are eager to follow the necessary restrictions of the pandemic or not, it will be very difficult for them to have the holiday season they were likely hoping for. As caregivers, we may be in an older loved one’s safe “bubble,” but if we aren’t, we may also have to make the difficult decision not to get together with them for the sake of their safety.

If we have to turn down holiday celebrations with a loved one, we may struggle with feelings of guilt. While this is natural, we should give ourselves permission to feel safe during the pandemic, and remember not to lose sight of why we made this decision: to protect ourselves and our loved ones from a serious virus that may have lingering symptoms and long-term health problems, and has contributed to the deaths of over a million people globally.

However, social isolation is still a serious issue. If the loved one we care for is at risk for holiday loneliness and social isolation, we should encourage them to:

  • Plan safe, fun holiday activities with loved ones in their bubble, as well as those they can communicate with virtually. With the power of video sharing, they can sing carols with their grandchildren, share memories with old friends, have a holiday sweater contest with family or swap holiday recipes they’ve always wanted to try.
  • Explore hobbies and other areas of interest, whether they be new, or old pastimes they’d like to revisit. Consider options that can be enjoyed any time of the day, especially times when your loved one is most likely to feel lonely and inactive.
  • Look into Mental Health America’s support community, which is full of individuals who are online night and day to communicate with and support each other. 
  • Call The Friendship Line at 1-800-971-0016. The Friendship Line is available 24/7 for adults age 60 and over to offer a friendly ear and friendly conversation.

Identifying how both we and our loved ones are feeling, acknowledging the changes caused by the pandemic and not unfairly comparing our celebrations this year to other celebrations in the past, can go a long way to bring peace and joy this season. If a loved one requires further assistance, we shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to their doctor or local mental health services like Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s Behavioral Health Services.