Loneliness puts a damper on the holiday season, but it’s dangerous all year round.
Retirement tip of the week: Even if you can’t socialize much in person this year, aim to stay connected with friends and family — and make a plan to keep in touch with others even after the holiday decorations are put away.
People, especially those age 50 and older, who are socially isolated or feel lonely are at a higher risk of health issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social isolation is linked with a 50% higher risk of dementia, and could be the cause of smoking and obesity. Loneliness was also linked to heart disease or stroke, and higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, the agency said.
The continuing pandemic has not made it easy for people to stave off loneliness. In March 2020, nearly everyone in the country was urged to stay home for months, with very little physical interaction except for necessary errands or trips to the doctor. In the year and a half since, many cities are still encouraging people to keep their distance or placing restrictions on establishments to limit the number of diners, shoppers or visitors.
For some individuals, it was an unexpected reminder of just how much it means to socialize with others, such as weekly family visits or just chatting with the cashier while he rings up groceries.
“I am hopeful that awareness sticks and people appreciate how important all of us are to each other,” Louise Hawkley, senior research scientist for NORC at the University of Chicago, said during a Columbia University Age Boom Academy, an annual seminar for journalists and experts held earlier this year with the theme of loneliness. The pandemic also brought to light other needs, such as sight, sound and smell, she said. “It’s all got to be part of the package.”
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Still, older Americans in particular face many challenges. For one, there’s a lack of institutions that foster connections and “value what they have to offer,” Linda Fried, director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, said during the Age Boom Academy.
Another is the connection between ageism and loneliness, Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, said during the event.
But there are also ways to combat loneliness. People can volunteer for an organization that means something to them, or join social clubs with others who have similar interests (such as crocheting, golf or robotics).
Simply picking up the phone and calling a relative can be effective as well. Befriending neighbors can also do wonders. Create a plan to forestall loneliness, even if it takes a little extra work or seems unnecessary.
Technology can play a vital role, though it depends on how willing older Americans are to adopt it into their homes or its accessibility in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. The internet can’t replace offline connections, but it can foster deeper relationships or interactions and supplement in-person relationships.
During the pandemic, when families couldn’t visit their loved ones because of lockdowns, many centers were implementing video calls into their routines. Relatives have used Zoom and other video platforms to still get together, if even only virtually, for the holidays in the past year and a half.
“I am also hopeful that we might have a breakthrough here to re-recognize we need each other,” Fried said. “This is at the beating heart of being human.”
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