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Social isolation preserves health but challenges well-being

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, researcher Brenda Whitehead conducted a study to identify what brought comfort and joy to seniors. Older adults said they were eased when connecting with family and friends, interacting on digital platforms (video chats, emails, social media, texts), engaging in hobbies, being with pets, spending time with spouses or partners, and when relying on faith.

“One thing I learned in my research is that most older adults are incredibly resilient and creative in how they approach and manage challenges,” Whitehead says.

As the holidays approach many older adults are experiencing pandemic fatigue. Their risk of exposure is compounded by the fact that they are a high-risk, vulnerable population - making them more likely to be socially isolated.

“Balancing health while reducing risk is a challenge, but just as we protect our physical health, long-term isolation can adversely impact our mental health,” the researcher reports. “Early on we were able to do it, but it’s harder now. As humans, we can’t isolate long term without impacting our mental health.”

A University of Michigan-Dearborn associate professor of psychology, Whitehead, studies adult health and stress-coping mechanisms. She says, “Now is the time to value and draw upon one’s lifetime experiences of weathering things.”

She says seniors should not see themselves as a burden and should ask for help even if their need for help lasts longer than most expected.

“Early in the pandemic, religious communities and neighbors were very aware of the more vulnerable and isolated among them and did a great job offering help and support; but as the pandemic has gone on, and we have adapted to this strange new normal, many older adults are feeling forgotten. Family and friends should make the effort to remind them that they are happy to help,” she says.

Whitehead also recommends that while it is normal to feel stress, grief or anxiety about this holiday season, it’s best to acknowledge these feelings and find other ways to make it the best holiday season possible by being creative.

Here are Whitehead’s ideas for "comfort and joy" during the holiday season:

Find ways to CONNECT, whether in-person or virtually.

  • Send holiday cards, letters or emails to friends and family

  • Connect via Facetime or Zoom during holiday meals or traditions

  • Watch holiday movies "together" while on video calls

  • Arrange a bundled-up, socially distanced outdoor gathering:

BYO hot cider, cocoa, and holiday cookies

Walk around the neighborhood and admire the holiday decorations

  • Create new traditions with those in your household like a special movie night or game night or taking a holiday photo shoot with your pet

Find ACTIVITIES that bring you joy. Stay busy with activities you love.

  • Create special ornaments or hand-made gifts

  • Bake holiday treats

  • Create holiday cards

  • Read festive, uplifting books

  • Listen to joyful holiday music

Connect to your FAITH which research showed as the most powerful comfort and joy

  • Pray or meditate on the meaning of the season within your faith tradition

  • Listen to, sing, or play faith-based music

Get ACTIVE! You can even make this a video-chat activity!

  • Take a walk in the snow, assuming it’s physically safe for you to do so

  • Dance to "Jingle Bell Rock"

  • Play Simon Says, or "Santa Says,” or Follow-the-Leader with children, over video chat

  • EXERCISE!!! This does wonders for mental health


  • Really think about and appreciate your blessings, no matter how small. Do you have a warm home? Caring friends? Physical health? Favorite entertainment?

  • Create a daily gratitude list of what you're thankful for

Take POSITIVE action

  • Find ways to HELP someone else

  • Go caroling around your neighborhood or play holiday tunes on your instrument from your porch

  • Write letters or call those who are isolated alone

  • Spread joy to neighbors with baked treats

  • Find a charity to support!

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