Helping Older Adults Find Happiness During COVID-19

Expert tips to help seniors be happy and enjoy life while social distancing.

Posted May 28, 2020

With social distancing lasting longer than many of us had hoped and with older adults disproportionately affected by the medical effects of COVID-19, older adults are more likely to maintain their distance from others, even while the rest of us slowly return to “normal.” 

The downside of social distancing, however, is that it increases loneliness and isolation among a group of folks who are already at risk of social isolation—older adults, and more specifically, older adults with chronic illness.

What is the risk of social isolation?

There is well-established research linking social isolation and loneliness to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, a weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, dementia, and even death. 

According to the National Institute on Aging, “people who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation are at particular risk.”

(I suspect researchers may be adding social distancing due to a global pandemic to this list in the near future.)

On the other hand, people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, experience a better mood, and have a sense of purpose in life.

This is why it’s essential to know strategies for helping older adults stay mentally well and “socially” active during prolonged social distancing precautions. These tips can help:

1. Stay connected with friends and family

One of the best ways to stay mentally well during uncertain times is to stay connected to the people who mean the most. When we’re faced with uncertainty, the comfort of close relationships offers soothing and reassurance.

With social distancing, older adults may not be able to see loved ones in person, but with modern technology, there are all sorts of ways to stay connected. For example, FaceTime (iPhone), WhatsApp, and Zoom all have video telephone options. If these options seem out of reach, there's the good ol' fashion telephone!

2. Keep a daily routine

With so much out of our control during the coronavirus pandemic, a routine can help to bring a little order to the chaos. A daily routine means that you essentially do similar activities around the same time every day. A daily routine offers many benefits: It helps to provide a sense of security and predictability, it helps to reduce stress and anxiety, and it has the added benefit of helping you sleep better at night.

3. Maintain a healthy diet

A healthy diet is essential to staying both physically and mentally healthy. A healthy diet helps our organs to function at their best, helps to maintain our memory and cognitive ability, helps to manage chronic conditions (like blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, etc.), helps to strengthen the immune system, and promotes muscle and bone health.

4. Stay physically fit

Many older adults take regular exercise classes at a gym or their local senior center. With social distancing, however, these options may not be available. You don’t have to throw in the proverbial sweat towel. There are many options for staying physically fit at home. Here are some ideas:

  • Take a walk or a hike. 
  • Pump up the tires, put on a helmet, and go for a bike ride.
  • Stretch or do yoga in your living room. 

5. Get fresh air

Social distancing doesn't mean that you have to stay in your house with the windows closed. Fresh air and sunlight are essential to maintaining physical and mental wellness. Here are some ideas for taking in fresh air while also keeping your distance from others:  

  • Take a walk
  • Read a book outside
  • Garden

6. Limit your media intake to a couple of credible sources

Getting caught up in the coronavirus news frenzy can be overwhelming and cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Limiting the amount of time spent in front of the media can help. Here are a couple of credible sources to go to for your coronavirus news:

  • The CDC has a webpage dedicated to information on the coronavirus outbreak.
  • The National Council on Aging has helpful information and a COVID-19 Resource Center for older adults.

7. Spend time on a hobby

Spending time on hobbies not only helps to pass the time, but it also helps to reduce stress, lowers risk of depression, and improves quality of life. You might consider learning a language with online courses, trying out gourmet recipes, or working on your family genealogy. As you get started, be careful not to overdo it. Start with one or two activities and see how they go. 

8. Complete projects around your home

Have you been putting off cleaning out that closet or garage? Social distancing offers the perfect opportunity to complete those household tasks you've been putting off. Just be mindful of how many trips to the store you’ll need to make and pace yourself (slow and steady wins the race). 

9. Stimulate your mind

Keeping your brain stimulated is important during social distancing. Missing your book club? Consider reading your monthly book, then setting up a video call with your book club friends to get together online and talk about the book. Wondering how to keep your weekly chess match going? Call up an old friend and see if they're up for a chess match on the phone.

10. Try something new

Does social distancing have you watching more TV than usual? Take a break from the TV and listen to a podcast. Podcasts are essentially online radio shows ranging from educational to entertaining. And (bonus) they’re typically free. Here are a couple to get you started.

  • On Being is a Peabody Award-winning public radio show and podcast. It answers the questions: What does it mean to be human?
  • TED Talks and Podcasts are short, powerful lectures from experts in all sorts of fields.

I hope that these tips help older adults find wellness in the midst of COVID-19 and offer helpful reminders to continue to live life to its fullest, even while remaining six feet apart.