As first published this month in Psychology Today.
Covid-19 recommendations over the last year have called for social distancing measures. Masks, six feet of distance, and avoiding gatherings have all helped to reduce spread; however, they have also impacted connections with others. Warm and cozy hugs, in-person meetings, and joyful gathering rituals such as graduations and weddings have all been curtailed. Even funerals have made delving, not only into the spiritual world but also into the virtual one a necessity.
Mental health professionals have continued to clarify that, though physical distancing is a necessary public health measure, the need to continue to find safe ways to remain socially connected is imperative. Loneliness, perceived social isolation when there is a discrepancy between desired and actual social interactions, and social isolation, the objective measure of lack of social engagements, can have detrimental effects on health. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation may be associated with poorer cognitive function, depression, anxiety, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and increased mortality. The mortality risk has been equated to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes per day and shown to be more than the risk of physical inactivity or obesity.
Covid-19 has warranted restrictions that affect the type and frequency of in-person interactions and further highlight the disparities in this technology-based environment.
1. Scheduling an anticipated connection can boost mood
Not only do connections benefit health, anticipating these moments can give your brain a boost. People are traveling and gathering less during this pandemic. Yet studies have shown that scheduling enjoyable connections in the future may produce more intense emotions than simply remembering the fun times of the past. The brain’s nucleus accumbens gets a dopamine boost from the anticipation of a pleasurable activity, not simply the experience of it.
If you are trying to figure out an entertaining way to connect, there are undoubtedly others in your community who are pondering the same question. Brainstorm with family, friends or neighbors activities for your calendar.
Julie Heiden, drew inspiration from CHOPPED and combined connection, cooking, and competition. She sent a surprise box of non-perishable ingredients to three friends in Virginia. Inside was a bag of salt & vinegar chips, dark chocolate, pre-cooked bacon (that did not require refrigeration) and barbecue sauce. They were told ahead of time to choose their form of protein, and then they all opened the surprise elements together on Zoom. Each had forty minutes to concoct their dish with their family. The finished meal was split into three containers and driven to each home with contactless delivery. The teens of the family were the judges.
2. Connect across the ages
In a study of Bay Area community-dwelling older adults, 40% reported social isolation, more than half reported heightened loneliness, and almost three quarters reported little to no socializing by video or Internet during Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders.
In research done by Kahlon and colleagues, older adults who received regular phone calls involving empathic listening for 4 weeks during Covid experienced improvement in loneliness, depression, and anxiety compared to older adults who did not.
The Vinson Hall Retirement Community in Virginia implemented a strategy last spring to understand the mental health needs of their residents. Michelle Crone, Director of Engagement, recalls that when it became clear that physical connections with the outside world had to be curbed for the residents’ safety, staff immediately began to think of ways to provide ongoing meaningful connections. In April, they initiated Operation Well-Being. Twelve staff members each did a check-in phone call with 25 residents every day. This gave every older adult the opportunity to have a regular and meaningful interaction in addition to family calls received. “I always considered it a successful day if I could make them laugh,” explains Crone. Coordinators also assisted residents with computers and technology skills so that they were able to access enrichment opportunities that had been converted to virtual programming.
Lori Herald, block captain of the oldest street in D.C., has helped create weekly opportunities for older adults in her community. Approximately 20 houses with porches line the street that President Lincoln traveled down to get from his summer cottage to the White House. These residents have come to their porches a couple times a week to check in with each other and the elderly in their neighborhood. On Covid Wednesdays, they have collectively supported local businesses and dined on their own porches “together” with the community. Lori has knocked on doors, made phone calls, and sent emails to the older adults in their neighborhood helping them navigate online groceries or picking up groceries for them. Now she and others are helping the elderly connect to DC Vaccine Coalition and schedule their vaccine appointments.
Regular phone calls to older adults, volunteering with nonprofits that serve the elderly, and letter-writing to residents at long-term care facilities are all ways to support connections with the elderly right now.