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En español | With older Americans being instructed to stay home and avoid contact with others to deter the spread of COVID-19, feelings of isolation are naturally emerging — especially among those who are home alone. We asked Val Walker, an expert on coping with isolation and author of The Art of Comforting and the forthcoming 400 Friends and No One to Call (due out March 26, from Central Recovery Press), for practical advice on ways to stay connected and maintain mental and emotional health.
How can we avoid feelings of isolation while stuck at home?
Find one person with whom you can share your own worries and feelings over the phone. Is there a comforting friend, family member, therapist or chaplain for you to call, to talk openly and privately? In these challenging times, it is perfectly natural to feel afraid, lonely or overwhelmed. If you have no one with whom you can talk, call your local agency on aging and find out how to gain support. If you have previously seen a psychotherapist or faith-based professional, consider reaching out to them.
How can I catch up and check in on friends without leaving my house?
Take the initiative to call your fellow older adults to check in with them and practice good listening skills. Make a contact list of people to call and check in daily or every few days. Start with those in your close circle of friends and then move outward. You can go through your old letters, address books, alumni contacts, email addresses and memorabilia to reconnect with “long-lost” friends, classmates or coworkers who you haven't been in touch with. It might be uplifting and reassuring to reach out to them — and they would likely love to get a call. Provide empathy, understanding and comfort by listening with acceptance and compassion. Try not to judge others or hand out quick advice before you have listened first. You can also share what is on your mind. Believe it or not, we often can find support by offering our support. We can exchange our knowledge with one another about local resources for medicine, medical services, stores, food pantries, supplies and news updates on the coronavirus.
What are the best ways to connect with friends and family using technology?
Many older adults use videoconferencing such as Skype, FaceTime and Zoom. This allows for conversations to happen — and in these times, we need to have good conversations and “think out loud” as we cope with coronavirus issues. It can be helpful for a family member or friend to teach how to use these services and apps. At an assisted living program where I work part-time, I have been teaching seniors how to stay in touch with their family members and loved ones by using their smartphones and iPads. But the most important tool is the phone.
Other suggestions include reaching out the old-fashioned way with greeting cards and letters, and sending text messages or emails with your photos and checking in.
How can I avoid feeling anxious and remain engaged with others despite my age making me vulnerable to the virus?
Offering your time to volunteer and help others in your community is helpful for handling anxiety and helplessness. Some volunteer programs can be done from home. When we reach out to others who may be even more isolated than we are, it is psychologically healing and calming. Humans generally feel better when they have a sense of purpose and a sense of control by taking action. Contact volunteer coordinators through volunteermatch.com or call your United Way office or senior center to find out about volunteering-from-home opportunities.
Make gifts for people and get creative. Write, paint, knit, make crafts, cards, pillows or puppets. Find projects that are creative and rewarding, especially if it will cheer up someone else you love. Share podcasts, emails, calls and links about your favorite books, radio shows and movies with your loved ones and friends so they have more entertainment. Enjoy music and play all kinds of soothing and cheerful sounds to boost your mood.
Editor's note: Some questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Resources to aid with negative feelings during the coronavirus pandemic
• Reach out to your local community services phone line such as 211 or 311. You can ask for a referral to a support line to discuss how you are feeling.
• If you need mental health services for depression or anxiety, reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or call 800-985-5990. Many therapists are able to do phone counseling sessions.