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Keeping company: Helping older adults feel less lonely

| Healthy You | Aging Well

Older man opens door of his home to a happy woman

As we settle into the winter season, take time to consider loved ones who may be isolated.

The winter months can bring joyful celebrations. But this time of year also may make people feel more alone. 

“For some seniors, the holiday season can be fairly stressful due to loneliness and isolation,” said Camille Moreno, PSYD, a clinical psychologist at PeaceHealth Cascade Park Behavioral Health Clinic in Vancouver, Washington.

Many people may already feel that way. In a 2018 national survey of people 45 and older, about 1 in 3 said they felt lonely and isolated. During the pandemic, those feelings intensified

The AARP now describes long-term isolation and loneliness as a public health crisis for Americans in midlife and older. That’s a big concern because loneliness can lead to long-term health challenges. These may include depression, anxiety, diabetes, stomach issues, difficulty sleeping and high blood pressure.

“Social interaction is essential to our overall well-being,” Moreno said. But it’s difficult in the winter for people to get out and spend time with others. That could be due to bad weather, less daylight or the fear of getting sick or spreading illness. Health issues might also keep them from leaving home. Or they might not feel comfortable driving anymore. 

Whatever the reason, here are some practical tips to help others feel less alone during the winter months. You may find that a little gesture goes a long way.

Learn the signs of loneliness

Everyone feels lonely from time to time. Working from home, living alone or moving to a new city are all reasons some of us feel lonely. 

Chronic loneliness is different. It lasts a long time and can feel like it never lifts. It shows up in many ways. It could be an inability to connect with others deeply. Or a lack of close friends. Low self-esteem may play a role, too. 

Once you know the signs, you can recognize them in the people you love. 

Visit in person, if possible

Research shows that socializing is important for our mental health. If you can do so safely, visit your loved ones in person, even for a short time. It can lift their mood and help them know that others care about them. 

You don’t have to plan outings or organize activities. You could simply go through photo albums, play board games or spend time catching up. 

Pick up the phone

Can’t visit in person? Reach out by phone or video chat. 

Ask about your loved one’s favorite things to do in the winter, or maybe follow a recipe together. Even if you’re not together, these activities can let them know you’re thinking about them. 

Use technology to connect

Technology can bridge the distance between people. If your loved one is new to it or uncomfortable learning on their own, offer to show them how to text, send email messages or make video calls. Tools like screen magnifiers and digital pens can help if they find it hard to use the small screen of a tablet or phone. Once they understand the basics, you could share some of your favorite websites or apps with them. 

While you’re exploring together, consider taking some time to talk about online safety. You can help them avoid online fraud by sharing the warning signs of scammers attempting to steal sensitive information. 

Encourage hobbies and interests

As we age, it’s important to keep our brains active as well as our bodies. You could encourage your loved one to join a local club if they enjoy a hobby or activity. Meeting people nearby with similar interests can create lasting relationships. Hobbies also can foster regular interaction and help them pass the time. Try visiting a community or senior center near them to see what’s available. 

Suggest reaching out to a health care provider 

Urge your loved one to talk with their doctor or a mental health professional if you are concerned about their isolation or mental health. Their doctor can share strategies to improve their mood and ways to keep their spirits up beyond the winter months. 

PeaceHealth offers many resources to help, including services for older people, counseling and behavioral health

“Tell your loved one there is nothing to be ashamed about,” Dr. Moreno said. “Seeking help when you need it is brave.”

portrait of Camille N. Moreno PSYD

Camille N. Moreno PSYD

Clinical Psychology

Camille N. Moreno PSYD practices Clinical Psychology in Vancouver.