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6 Ways to Overcome Social Isolation During Another COVID Winter

As pandemic persists, staying connected to others is essential to physical and mental well-being

two women wearing protective face mask while hiking in the forest in cold weather.  Greeting with elbow

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Cases of COVID-19 are rising in many areas of the country. In fact, some experts are predicting a forthcoming surge, which could mean another winter without handshakes and hugs — or, at least, significantly fewer of them.

“In some ways people are feeling a little safer going out,” especially if they are vaccinated and boosted, says Ruth Benca, M.D., chair of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. “The problem is, though, that we're still in a pandemic,” she adds. And with the threat of breakthrough infections, menacing variants and vaccine resistance, “a lot of people are just not feeling comfortable rushing out and pretending we're back to normal yet.” 

Health Risks of Social Isolation

Isolation and loneliness are associated with higher rates of:

  • Chronic health conditions, including heart disease
  • Weakened immune system
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
  • Death

Source: Administration for Community Living  

Another winter without indoor gatherings with family and friends, however, comes with its own health hazards. Social isolation has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One study found that living without meaningful social relationships is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Disconnecting from others is also bad for the brain. It’s been associated with poorer cognitive function and a 50 percent greater risk of dementia.

A big problem is, it’s pervasive. Two-thirds of adults reported experiencing social isolation and high levels of anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic, an October 2020 report from AARP Foundation revealed. And unlike the coronavirus, for these conditions there isn’t a vaccine to ease the burden.  

“Study after study suggests that social connection and better brain health — including cognition and better mental well-being — go hand in hand,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president of policy and brain health at AARP and executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health. “The health consequences from loneliness are real, and the pandemic has laid bare the effect social alienation has on adults throughout the country.”  

The good news is that there are things you can do to both minimize your risk of COVID and the consequences from social isolation. Here are six ways to optimize your mental and physical health during another pandemic winter.  

1. Embrace virtual opportunities

There’s no denying that the best interactions are in-person ones, Benca says. But if you’re still waiting on younger members of the family to get vaccinated or for indoor group gatherings to feel safer, the next best option is a video connection.

Keep up with video calls to friends and family. You can also sign up for a virtual writing workshop, art class or online choir (find one that interests you in AARP’s “Boosters for Joy: A Guide on Ways to Connect,” which lists a number of remote programs for adults all over the country).

Need some tech assistance? AARP has step-by-step guides on how to make a FaceTime call or participate in a Zoom meeting

2. Get outside as much as you can

For some people, especially those in warm-weather climates, winter doesn’t put a damper on outdoor time. Restaurant patios remain open, and parkas stay tucked away in the closet.

For others, though, the season’s darker days and colder temps make getting fresh air more difficult. “But getting outdoors regularly, wherever you are, is important,” both for light exposure and for physical activity, Benca says.

Exposure to sunlight helps you keep up the production of melatonin, which is important for sleep, and serotonin, a mood booster. Plus, exercise keeps the heart and brain healthy. Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.

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Of course, heed caution if there’s snow and sleet on the ground, which could increase your risk of falling. But if it’s safe, bundle up and make it a point to meet a friend for a walk, Benca suggests. You can also check with a community center or parks department for a list of outdoor activities.

Worried about COVID? A vaccine and booster will significantly decrease your risk of getting infected and sick, studies show. Plus, the CDC says you’re less likely to be exposed to the coronavirus during outdoor activities. And you can always wear a mask and keep 6 feet from others to keep your risk to a minimum.

3. Consider a pod

Lots of people weathered the worst of the pandemic with pods, or small groups of people who quarantined together or exercised similar levels of precaution. This concept may be worth revisiting, Benca says, especially if you have a close group of friends “that you are comfortable being with who are also being careful.”

Just keep your mask handy for any indoor group gatherings, even if everyone is fully vaccinated. The CDC recommends wearing a mask in public indoor settings if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission, which currently is most of the country.

4. Keep a routine 

Maintaining a sense of structure is important, Benca notes, “because when you're isolated, you may be kind of drifting and you're not regular about things.” In the winter, especially, keep to a sleep schedule, no matter how tempting it may be to doze off once the sun goes down.

Older adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) advises. Anything above or below that amount can wreak havoc on your health; bad sleep habits can even cause problems in memory and thinking skills, the Global Council on Brain Health reports.

“It's very important that your day is also structured, that you have regular meals … and that you have activities during the day that you can look forward to,” including social engagements, even if it’s just a 15-minute call with a loved one, Benca says. “When people are in the working [phase of their] lives, they have to go to work during the day; they have a lot of structured things that they have to do. And with retirement and being older, that kind of disappears, and it can get worse in the winter, when you don't get out and about as much.”

5. Talk with a health care provider

If you feel isolated or notice loneliness setting in, let your health care provider know. Describe symptoms you are experiencing, and outline any major changes or stresses in your life, NIA advises. Being open and honest about your health and habits will help your physician decide the best treatment. NIA has tips on how patients can prepare for a medical appointment and discuss sensitive topics.

6. Use available resources

Federal agencies, national organizations and local community groups have resources to help adults avoid social isolation. The new guide from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health puts many of these tools in one place — from virtual events to volunteer opportunities to podcasts and puzzles that tackle loneliness and isolation. Some are COVID-specific; others are for more ordinary times.  

“We think we might have something engaging for everyone here to choose from," AARP's Lock says. “Whether it’s interesting podcasts to listen to while out walking, or you are wondering how to have a meaningful conversation with your neighbor living with more advanced dementia, or you are looking to join a writer’s workshop — we have you covered.”

You can also check out AARP’s Community Connections, which links individuals to resources and support services in their area.