Since the pandemic caused the state to shut down a year ago, retiree Barbara Munck has barely left her North Haven home, except for groceries and doctors’ appointments. A widow, she lives alone. She had been volunteering with AARP before the pandemic, and quickly learned how to attend, lead and orchestrate video conferences.
After activities shut down over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the 68-year-old “was definitely feeling the sadness of not being able to interact with people.” Munck relished returning to her routine. “Being an AARP volunteer definitely saved my life. I don’t know how I would have survived this pandemic,” she said.
The prolonged social isolation, combined with the uncertainty of when it will end, causes people of all ages to feel stressed and anxious, experts say. “Social isolation is linked to a range of issues, including depression, anxiety and alcohol use,” said Eva Lefkowitz, professor and head of UConn’s Human Development and Family Sciences Department. “Social isolation, even before the pandemic, is quite common in older adults in particular, and is linked to a range of troubling health problems, including heart disease, mental health issues and cognitive decline.”
Someone’s risk of dying from any other cause increases when people are socially isolated, said Nicholas Nicholson Jr., professor of nursing at Quinnipiac University, who has studied social isolation for 15 years. Social isolation increases the risk of being hospitalized; people’s quality of life and sleep decreases and, in older adults, their risk of dementia rises. “One study equates being socially isolated to the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Nicholson said.
After a year of living through a pandemic, people of all ages are more socially isolated and lonely. Adolescents, older adults and women with children under 18 living at home are especially isolated from social connections, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.
“Social isolation is not good for mental health for anyone at any time. We are in a period of prolonged, undetermined social isolation,” said Beth Russell, associate professor in UConn’s Human Development and Family Sciences Department. The undetermined nature of the stressor is itself stressful, she said.
There weren’t enough mental health professionals serving adolescents to meet the need pre-pandemic, and the stress of not being able to go to school in person, see friends and engage in activities has made the situation worse, said Russell, who also directs UConn’s Center for Applied Research in Human Development. Parents of young children trying to work from home and help their kids with schoolwork may forget the need children have for time with their parents. Parents can get sucked into their online lives, and children can feel isolated.
Russell suggested setting aside at least 20 minutes daily of one-on-one time with children to play, take a walk, cook dinner together, read, watch one episode of the child’s favorite show or complete the bedtime ritual — without their phone.
No matter the age, researchers and mental health experts recommend people schedule time to connect with friends and family. In-person visits through walks, outdoor dining or gathering, distanced, around a firepit or in a state park allow for a more genuine connection, even when masked and bundled against the cold; but virtual connections are better than nothing for all ages, said Lefkowitz and Russell.
“One of the things we all do is find connection to the meaningful people in our life. The only safe, healthy way to do that right now is to employ a little technology,” Russell said. “We don’t want to discourage the use of technology to maintain those social connections. We want to encourage it.” Naturally, parents should monitor their children’s technology to be sure it’s age appropriate, but the negatives from too much screen-time pale in comparison to increased substance use, distress, disordered eating and suicide among teens, Russell said.
Multiplayer video games allow participants to chat and joke while they’re playing together. Several board game companies have created online versions friends can play together from their own homes. YouTube offers a plethora of free classes for learning new crafts, new languages, a musical instrument and exercise classes, where friends can connect through video chat and watch and learn together.
Taking a few minutes every day to text, email or call friends and family helps the person who initiates the contact as much as the person on the receiving end, Nicholson said. Those looking to help a stranger can contact their local senior center or AARP’s Community Connections program (aarpcommunityconnections.org) to be paired with someone in need of a phone call or video chat.
If you’re older and don’t have internet or a computer, Nicholson suggested calling the local senior center, telling them you live in the community and asking if they have any COVID-safe programs to connect people without computers.
Volunteering has “been really good for me,” Munck said. “I think I might have been sitting here watching Netflix all the time instead of a lot of the time.”