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Our attempts to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe during the global pandemic are causing a malady of a different kind—namely, an epidemic of loneliness. Our aging population was already vulnerable to loneliness before this health crisis, with at least 25 percent of those over age 65 living in social isolation. Now that we are forced to keep a social distance from those we love, this number is likely far higher.

For the elderly, isolation does more than just cause feelings of loneliness; it can also cause significant health problems, according to the CDC. Among the health risks of social isolation for senior adults:

  • 29 percent increased risk of heart attack;
  • 32 percent increased risk of stroke;
  • 50 percent increased risk of dementia; and
  • General increased risk of anxiety, depression, and premature death.

While these risks are scary, the good news is that with a little effort, we can help our elderly loved ones stave off these risks, even while maintaining physical distance. Let’s look at what we can do to help.

Stay Connected in Other Ways

It’s important to note that loneliness and isolation are not the same thing. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone or isolated, while isolation is the actual lack of connection. We can’t always help our loved ones with loneliness because we can feel lonely even in a crowd—but we can help avoid isolation by staying in contact. Video platforms like Zoom and Facetime aren’t the same as being in the same room, but they do help. When your loved one can’t access these platforms, even regular phone calls will give them someone else to talk to. Make an effort to check up regularly, especially if your loved one truly lives alone.

Adopt a Pet

Dog adoptions have skyrocketed in the months since the pandemic began, and with good reason: pets give us much-needed companionship. If your loved one is capable of caring for a pet, adopting a dog or cat can be incredibly therapeutic during this time. Not only are they great company, but also caring for an animal helps keep the mind alert and occupied.

Encourage a Routine

When our day is filled with tasks, it gives us less time to dwell on our loneliness. The same holds true for seniors. Encourage your loved one to establish a daily pattern of activity at home, including getting out of bed, eating, bathing, and exercising at the same times each day. If your loved one has too much time on their hands, encourage them to try a new hobby, something to occupy their mind. The more active they are, the healthier they will be mentally and emotionally.

Finally, don’t assume an elderly person is doing okay just because they aren’t saying anything or making complaints. Make a point to ask—and ask often. Going the extra mile to stay in touch is key to helping them remain connected and grounded. Establish these habits now, and continue them even after the pandemic subsides, so our aging loved ones can continue to maintain a quality of life.