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Nov. 30, 2020, 1:26 p.m. EST

As social isolation takes its toll on older adults, many find ways to cope during the holidays

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Craig Miller

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

The holidays, for all their glitter and manufactured cheer, are also notorious for stoking feelings of loneliness and depression.

This year – the first holiday season of the  COVID-19 pandemic  – will be a bigger test than usual. With coronavirus cases on the rise again across the country, caution will dictate more social distancing and isolation, particularly among older Americans.

Some of the nation’s most respected health authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and his boss at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, have publicly said they’re foregoing large family gatherings at Thanksgiving this year.

“It can’t be understated how important social isolation can be on the health of older adults,” says Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, a geriatrician and palliative care specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. “Just like any drug, the social precautions for the COVID-19 pandemic have side effects,” he explains, “how older adults are able to interact with their community, see their grandchildren, continue staying physically active and continue even going to see their doctor with normal checkups.”

Earlier this year, Kotwal decided to try to pin down some of those effects by checking in every two weeks with a cross-section of 151 older adults living in the San Francisco Bay Area. The survey group, which averaged 75 years of age, revealed a wide range of loneliness and social isolation. More than half attributed “worsened feelings of loneliness” directly to the pandemic. 

Also see: COVID-19’s unspoken impact on retirement finances

The team measured loneliness using a scale developed at UCLA that gauges study subjects’ responses to a series of statements, such as “I lack companionship,” “I feel left out” and “I feel isolated from others.” Overall, Kotwal’s research team found indications of social isolation in 40% of its interviews.

During the interviews, a major factor in social isolation revealed itself: a lack of comfort or know-how with internet and technology-based means of connection, such as video calls and even email. Nearly half of respondents reported no “video-based socializing” and one in four said they lacked even the most basic internet-based connections, such as email.

This means that many older Americans were passed by when the world’s interactions moved largely online during early pandemic-related “lockdowns.”

Sue Baldwin counts herself among this group. The 89-year-old widow lives alone in a remote hamlet in upstate New York. She has no computer and doesn’t want one, and no cellphone for face-to-face interactions with her children and grandchildren, spread across the country from New Jersey to New Mexico.

“It’s made me even more introspective, I suppose, and dependent on the television, which I shouldn’t be,” Baldwin laments. Her only direct link to the world outside her rambling colonial home is a conventional telephone landline.

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Neighbors have been taking turns doing Baldwin’s weekly grocery shopping, something she dearly misses doing herself. “Aside from people who are so generously helping me,” she says, “I don’t see anybody.”

“I think that speaks to a need to identify people who are not doing well during this pandemic, more systematically,” says Kotwal.

But Kotwal notes a more encouraging finding, too: some older people have found  ways to adapt  and over time, some of the feelings of isolation have actually diminished.

“We were surprised that most people actually improved over time,” he says, by moving activities such as book clubs and even dance classes online. In some cases, concerned loved ones started checking in more often by phone, too.

“They actually received more proactive outreach from their children and family members,” says Kotwal.

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