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A few months ago, our collective hearts melted when we read the heart-wrenching letter that 90-year old Wanda Mills wrote to her 37-year-old neighbor, Marleen Brooks. Wanda Mills had lived in the house for 51 years, and all of her family and close friends had either passed away, or moved out of state. Desperate for human interaction, she sent a letter to her neighbor asking if she would consider being her friend. The note expressed how incredibly lonely and frightened Mills had become. Good Samaritan Marleen Brooks came to the rescue, and became great friends with her elderly neighbor.
It was a heartwarming, yet depressing story that many of us could emphasize with. Although not all of us are elderly, we certainly know people who are. We can only imagine the absolute desperation, humility, and strength it took for Mills to write that letter to her younger neighbor. We started thinking about our grandparents and elderly parents who may be living alone, hiding their fear and sadness.
Loneliness in elderly people is common, and so is an increased likelihood that they are isolating. It is difficult to get around, friends and spouses have passed away, and finances are limited. Unfortunately, the effects of loneliness on the elderly are serious, and include a “vulnerability to infection, cognitive decline, and increased chance of depression.” The bottom line is, the elderly often struggle with loneliness and the effects of this are serious for everyone.
During the pandemic, the likelihood that those who are elderly are lonely increases even more. Because the elderly are at more risk for infection and other health problems, it’s essential that they practice good social distancing. At the same time, none of us want the elderly to suffer any more than the rest of us, nor do we want them to become depressed. So how can the elderly practice good social distancing, but also not become isolated and lonely? Here are some tips.
1. Keep a sense of purpose. One of the most common struggles among the elderly, and what leads to a sense of loneliness is not having a purpose. Purposes often come in the forms of jobs or children, and when those are gone, it is hard to find something else to replace it. That being said, there are many hobbies and activities that the elderly can partake in that lead to a sense of purpose without putting one’s health at risk. These include gardening, crossword puzzles, knitting, re-organizing, sewing, journaling, artwork, etc. Try and keep a routine so each hobby or activity has its own place in the day. This will keep your mind active and negative thoughts at bay.
2. Keep in constant contact with those available. Try and keep in contact through email, letters, or phone calls with people in your life. Make a point to speak to at least one person every day for longer than 30 minutes. Even though you aren’t actually seeing someone in person, the sound of another person’s voice can be tremendously healing and uplifting during these uncertain times. If you don’t have close family or friends, call your local church. Many of them offer support groups or online communities where people can talk and support one another.
3. Get some age-appropriate exercise every day. There is a physical difference between someone who is 70 years old and someone who is 90 years old, so exercise can be different depending on the circumstances. If you are on the younger side, then walking outdoors in the neighborhood with a mask on alone can be invigorating and will allow you to see other people without getting close to them. This can help you to avoid that claustrophobic feeling that can happen when stuck in the house all day. If you are not as physically capable of that type of exercise, then simply getting outside in the garden and doing some light stretching or slow walking in the backyard can be very helpful. Exercise will add to your sense of purpose, routine, and give that much needed serotonin boost when feeling lonely.
Being elderly comes with enough challenges as it is, but being elderly in the midst of COVID-19 can be especially daunting. It is lonely and stressful enough for those who are under the age of 65, but for those who are confined to the house or worried about getting sick, it is even more difficult. The most important thing to remember is that this too, shall pass. We can try and make the best of this time by staying connected to the world around us.