Dealing with loneliness during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc worldwide. Though many parts of the U.S. have opened up at varying levels, social isolation remains the new normal for countless Americans.

Staying home is especially important for those in high-risk categories, such as older adults and people of any age with serious underlying medical conditions. People of any age can also experience loneliness, which can be brought on by isolation.

To gain insight, the Defender reached out to Dr. Rheeda Walker, a licensed psychologist and tenured professor of Psychology at the University of Houston, and author of “The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health,” and Deborah Moore, assistant director of the Human Services Division, Houston Health Department, and director of the Harris County Area Agency on Aging.

THE CONCERN

Walker discussed what concerns her most about the isolation some people are experiencing due to the pandemic.

“Honestly, it concerns me that individuals may not use this time to psychologically ‘reset’. Prior to the pandemic, a lot of folks were already overworked, stressed and exhausted,” Walker said.

“The need for physical distancing has created considerable challenges, but has also created opportunities for people to figure out what was working in their lives (pre-coronavirus) and what they would not want to return to.

“Once there is some insight into what may need to change, a plan is needed. For those who are focused on ‘getting back to normal,’ I think those individuals will experience added frustration and anxiety because so much is out of our hands.”

ADDITIONAL CHALLENGES

Moore is concerned about the additional challenge loneliness can present to older adults affected by the pandemic.

“The current period of self-isolation will disproportionately affect the elderly population, whose prior social contacts occurred largely at community centers or places of worship, [many] now closed due to the pandemic,” Moore said.

“Older adults who do not have close family or friends, and rely on the support of voluntary services or social care, could be placed at additional risk, along with those who are already lonely, isolated or secluded.

“Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

“Thus, the impacts of current social isolation policies may fall heavily on older adults, further compromising their ability to fight infection if they become ill with COVID-19…”

LEARNING TO COPE

“To cope, we need to identify the things that ARE in our control (e.g., is it time to work on that business idea? is it time to re-organize that closet?),” Walker said.

“Furloughed jobs and death of family members are understandably tragic and require extra effort to cope, but again, we have to assess what is and is not out of control.”

She added that loneliness can be exacerbated or worsened by the things that we tell ourselves – unhelpful thoughts.

“Some have thoughts like ‘I can’t get through this’ or ‘I can’t do another week of this.’ Those thoughts can be replaced with ‘I can do this for another day’ and ask ‘What will it take to get through another day?’

“We can call friends and family that we haven’t spoken to in months or years – doing so will help to get through the next hour and can boost mood even if only for a little while. Going for a walk can help.

“Yes, these are temporary fixes, but all we need is determination to take one day at a time. If someone is in crisis, they can call 1-800-273-TALK or send a text to 741741.”

STAYING CONNECTED

Here are some suggestions on dealing with loneliness and staying connected from Moore, other experts and AARP:

  • Find someone you can share your worries and feelings with over the phone, such as a friend, family member, minister or therapist.
  • Go for a walk and wave at your neighbors. Remember to stay at least 6 feet away from others and wear a mask. Stay active indoors by working out.
  • Use your smartphone, tablet or computer for videoconferencing such Skype, Facetime or Zoom.
  • Find a new hobby, whether it’s gardening, restoring furniture or playing online board games.
  • Have a drive-by “How you doing?” parade. Enjoy other drive-by events, such as birthdays and baby showers.
  • Make gifts for others, such as jewelry, pillows, knitted items or homemade face masks.
  • Share podcasts, emails, calls and links about your favorite books, radio shows and movies.
  • Look into volunteering-from-home opportunities through volunteermatch.com or the United Way of Greater Houston, 713-685-2300 or www.unitedwayhouston.org.

More help for older adults

The Harris County Area Agency on Aging (HCAAA) continues to serve older adults through the pandemic with a home-delivered meal program, masks, transportation, assistance in obtaining prescriptions and other medical supplies, a call center providing information and benefits counselors. If you are 60 or older, call 832-393-4301 for food or other services. For COVID-19 questions call 832-393-4220 or visit HoustonEmergency.org/COVID-19.