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Mental Health This Holiday and Beyond: 4 Steps to Combat Loneliness in Seniors

It’s December, and the holiday season is in full swing. It’s the time of year for good food, and good friends and family—at least for most of us. But for many others the holiday season can remind them of just how lonely they are.

The U.S. Census estimates that as many as 28% of adults aged 65+ lived alone in 2010, but a person doesn’t have to live alone to feel lonely. Loneliness can affect anyone who doesn’t feel meaningful connections with other people.

Loneliness is more than an emotional issue; it has real implications for physical and mental health. Recent research has shown that feeling lonely or being isolated affects mortality in a similar way to that of a smoking habit of 15 cigarettes per day, and has more of an impact on mortality than other risk factors, like obesity and sedentary lifestyle.

A 2010 Survey on Loneliness from the AARP indicated that over half of people who had been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or another mood disorder reported being lonely. Furthermore, people who are lonely are more prone to depression and at greater risk of cognitive decline.

The good news is, loneliness doesn’t have to be an ongoing problem. Here are 4 tips to help combat loneliness and protect the mental health of an older loved one this holiday and beyond.

1. Make communication a priority

Some older adults go days without speaking to anyone at all, especially those who are in poor health or who have limited mobility or transportation options. Nothing beats an in-person visit, but if you can’t see each other around the holidays, talking on the phone—or video chatting with Skype or Facetime if everyone has the technology—can make a world of difference. Make a point to reach out on or before the actual holiday so the older adult in your life doesn’t feel as though they have been forgotten during this special time of year. Encourage other friends or family members to do the same.

Keep the communication going in the new year by setting 15-30 minutes aside once a week to talk. Don’t feel restricted to small talk. Ask for advice, or how it felt to live through certain experiences. Older adults have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.

2. Encourage and facilitate social activities through local organizations

Places of faith, like churches, temples and mosques, are a great place for individuals of all ages to meet like-minded people and find opportunities for group activities. If your older loved one isn’t religious, consider activities available through a local senior center. Offer to join them on their first trip to any new places to reduce anxiety and apprehension.

3. Explore hobbies and other areas of interest

Figure out what the older adult in your life likes to do to relax or as a hobby (this is also a great way to get gift ideas). If they don’t currently have any hobbies, ask if there is one they used to have that they would like to get back into or something new they would like to try. Odds are that other people share that interest and there are opportunities for socializing around it. Even seemingly solitary hobbies can become social. Avid readers can join book clubs; people who like to quilt or knit can join sewing or knitting circles.

If an older adult wants to try a new hobby, adult education classes are great places to meet other people while learning skills. Alternatively, if an older adult is exceptionally skilled at a craft, they may be able to teach it to others.

4. Identify opportunities to combat loneliness at any time

For those times between visits, calls, organizational activities and hobbies when loneliness can strike, determine some options that your older loved one can take advantage of at any time of day. Mental Health America (MHA) has a support community that is full of individuals who are online day and night looking to communicate and support one another, and is a great option for the internet savvy older adult. Older adults who prefer talking on the phone can call The Friendship Line at 1-800-971-0016. The Friendship Line is available 24/7 for adults aged 60+ to offer a caring ear and friendly conversation, and it also offers outreach services.

When these steps don’t do the trick

If you have taken steps to address loneliness, but still find that the older adult in your life is withdrawn and in low spirits, they may be showing signs of depression. MHA has a free, anonymous and confidential depression screener online at MHAScreening.org. Screening is the first step to determining if professional help may be needed to address a mental health condition.

Have you taken other steps that were successful in combating your loved one’s loneliness? Please share with us in the comments.

Have a safe, happy and heartfelt holiday season!

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About Danielle Fritze

Danielle Fritze is Director of Public Education and Visual Communications at Mental Health America, where she creates public education campaigns and other public facing materials geared toward increasing awareness of mental health and mental illnesses. A Baltimore native, Danielle is passionate about her work, family and dog – Bailey.

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