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Alone for the holiday? 6 ways to beat the isolation

Mental health experts weigh in with tips for seniors who are celebrating solo and how to keep feelings of loneliness at bay.
Seniors Holidays Alone
In a survey by AARP and the United Health Foundation, more than half of adults 50 and older reported feeling socially isolated during the pandemic.Jenny Chang-Rodriguez/TODAY illustration / Getty Images

The deadly winter public health experts predicted is here, and with it are staggering statistics: According to NBC News, the U.S. has now counted more than 200,000 coronavirus cases a day for most of December as the virus surges across the country. As the holiday season is here, many are opting to stay safe by staying home, but it's hard.

For people like Colleen Johnston, 68, a retired schoolteacher in Iowa, staying home was the obvious choice for Thanksgiving, but the decision weighed heavily on her, mainly because she spends her days in total isolation. Johnston isn’t alone in feeling isolated. In a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the United Health Foundation released this fall, more than half of adults 50 and older reported feeling socially isolated during the pandemic.

“I understand the science and I completely accept and endorse everything Dr. Fauci and other experts at the CDC say about how to protect ourselves, but while my brain is on board, my heart is not,” Johnston told TODAY. “It’s hard to face the prospect of the holidays alone. The loneliness I feel is actually unbearable. I have so much family, and I am so very grateful for them and for our health — but to not be with any of them is so painful.”

Johnston isn’t one to nurse self-pity and is actively seeking ways to feel better, but so far all the purportedly helpful articles she’s seen on the subject offer little advice for seniors who live on their own. “There’s lots of ‘how to cope without seeing Grandma this year,’ but what about Grandma?” Johnston said. “I’m reading that I should play a board game. OK, great, but who do I play with?”

Loneliness in seniors poses serious health risks

It’s a fair question and one that calls attention to the fact that while socially isolating during a pandemic is tough for everyone, it is perhaps toughest on older people who live alone. It's not only COVID-19 that's a health threat. Isolation and loneliness, too, can pose serious health problems for seniors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Shana Feibel, attending psychiatrist at the Lindner Center of Hope in Mason, Ohio, and an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Cincinnati, works extensively with geriatric patients and she told TODAY that for most of them, the isolation is the hardest part of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Many of them are used to socializing with friends, going to religious functions and keeping busy by volunteering,” said Feibel. “Now with COVID, most of these options are closed to them. In addition, while younger patients are able to use the internet and can socialize through Zoom and other platforms, many geriatric patients either do not have access to a computer or do not know how to use one.”

Shari Botwin, a licensed clinical social worker in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of “Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing,” treats many patients over the age of 70. The pandemic, she said, has been difficult for them.

“This is triggering a lot of old traumas, losses and grief,” Botwin told TODAY. “Also, with being in a vulnerable population, elderly people can be so fearful of getting sick that they can take it a little too far. They’ll say, ‘I’m already 75 and I have all these underlying conditions. What if I go outside and get COVID?’ That made sense back in March and April when we knew so little about COVID, but we know now that you cannot get it by merely taking a walk (if you take the recommended precautions), but often people are still scared to go outside.”

6 ways seniors can beat the isolation blues

People like Johnston who are determined to follow COVID-19 safety protocols while also rising above pandemic loneliness during the holidays are a step ahead of the game because they actually want to feel better. A willing attitude can make a big difference, but there are also some other strategies mental health experts recommend to get through the season.

1. Validate your feelings.

If you're feeling sad, angry, anxious or all of the above and more, the first and most important step you must take is accepting these emotions. Don’t try to push past or ignore them no matter how uncomfortable they may be.

“These feelings are real and need to be honored,” said Phyllis Diamond, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist and retirement coach in New York City. “It’s not healthy to pretend you are OK when you’re not. One way people cope is to just ‘get through the day.’ That’s not the optimal solution.”

2. Communicate your feelings to someone who understands.

One of Botwin’s clients who has been struggling with loneliness is feeling less alone since making a point of talking with others in isolation.

“At least once a day he has a conversation with someone, whether just on the phone or using FaceTime,” said Botwin. “These aren’t superficial chats that they have; they really commit to talking about things that are bothering them while in isolation. They also talk about their connections to other people. So for instance, he might share about how his granddaughter is learning the piano and other things that remind him of his connections. This is important because it reminds him that those connections are still here, they’ve just been displaced.”

3. Be clear about what you desire from your family.

Dea Dean, a licensed professional counselor in Ridgeland, Mississippi, told TODAY that she often hears from her senior clients that they don’t want to burden their families. They hide their desire for connection so they don’t have to inconvenience anyone. But this is a surefire way to sink into loneliness. A better strategy, suggested Dean, is to identify what you want from your family and be as straightforward about that as possible.

“Telling them exactly what you’d love to do together, or how often you’d hope to talk or check in, demonstrates you believe in your loved ones’ ability to say yes or no, and own their own decisions,” said Dean. “It gives them the best shot at meeting your needs.”

4. Limit your intake of the news.

It’s important to stay up-to-date on the coronavirus situation, but it’s also important to unplug from it. Botwin suggests turning to the news with questions in mind and once those questions are answered, turning it off.

Limiting the news is about limiting your intake of fear,” said Botwin. “We're hearing the worst-case stories with COVID — especially with the elderly and vulnerable communities. We need information and resources, but once we start getting inundated with stories about loss, it creates a sense of despair and that’s not helpful.”

5. Spend time on something that will make you a better person when this is over.

“I have one client who is 79 and she just started her own business because she always wanted to be an interior designer,” said Botwin. “She misses her grandkids and she gets really sad, but when she feels like she can’t go on another day in isolation, she writes out ideas for her business. Anything you can do — painting, drawing, yoga or learning a new language can help you go from feeling lonely to thinking, ‘Wow this is exciting’ and ‘How can I integrate this into my life once COVID is over?’ Whatever it is, it can create space for hope and possibility.”

6. Be prepared with a plan for the actual holiday.

Decide in advance what you’ll eat, who you’d like to talk to (or video chat with) and what kinds of activities you’ll do in your downtime, so you don't get stuck with nothing to do. Plan a daytime walk (and don’t forget your mask). Think ahead about a TV show or movie you want to watch, have a good book on hand, write a letter, look at old family photos, cue up some music or try meditating for the first time. If you and your family (or friends) are up for a virtual visit, you could try doing an activity together, whether it’s a game, a craft project or a meal.

You may also want to consider looking into what kind of services are offered to the seniors in your community. For example, the AARP has resources to help prevent and combat isolation, and help manage your health and emotional health around the holidays. Some states are also running campaigns to provide additional support to the elderly this holiday season. For example, Together Apart: Holidays at Heart in Florida, offers a statewide elder helpline, grocery assistance and other services to seniors. In New York City, the Department for the Aging recently launched its Friendly VOICES initiative, which is designed to give older adults opportunities to connect with others on a weekly basis through phone and video calls.