An elderly woman wearing a red sweater sits at a table and stares out a window longingly. She appears to be daydreaming.
Older populations are particularly vulnerable to loneliness amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A simple phone call can let someone know they aren’t forgotten. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

In the third month of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s little surprise that social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders are becoming challenging.

Human beings are wired for connection, said Allyn Richards, PhD, a psychologist with Spectrum Health.

“We’re biologically driven to seek out human connection,” she said.

As the quarantine and business closures remain in place in many states, it’s critical to foster connections that stamp out loneliness.

“Loneliness can affect mental health,” Dr. Richards said. “And it certainly impacts physical health, too.”

Loneliness is often tolerable for acute periods. But weeks? Months?

“Where it happens more chronically, that’s where you see more of the negative physical and emotional effects,” she said.

It can lead to anxiety, depression and lack of sleep, which can spiral into cognitive declines and problems with the heart and immunity.

Dr. Richards recommends these simple ways to connect with friends and family.

Social calendar

Much like writing goals in a journal, you’re more likely to reach out if you put it on the calendar.

“It’s important to schedule something in so that you hold yourself accountable,” Dr. Richards said. Reach out as often as possible.

Celebrate milestones

The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly halted shared experiences small and large—birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, sports events.

“People bond over shared experiences,” Dr. Richards said. “The things we share in, where we feel joy together, help us feel connected.”

While gatherings beyond the immediate household are still discouraged, you can still celebrate milestones and shared experiences, even if you have to do it virtually or from a distance.

“We still need to have those positive events that we can connect over,” she said.

Plug in

On that note, make the most of technology to foster authentic connections. Video chats are more personal than phone calls.

“The more that you can get as close to typical human interactions, the better,” Dr. Richards said. “A video chat tends to make that more authentic.”

Seek sunshine

Head out for walks and enjoy the sunshine, sharing the experience with others.

Michigan’s latest order notes people can engage in outdoor activities “like walking, hiking, running, cycling, kayaking, canoeing or any other recreational activity,” as long as you stay 6 feet apart.

“Take opportunities to say hi and talk to your neighbor over the fence,” Dr. Richards said.

Identify the lonely

Be aware of vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly. And don’t mistake someone’s lack of communication as a desire for isolation.

“Just because someone isn’t reaching out doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing (loneliness),” Dr. Richards said. “It can be difficult to reach out and ask for help if there’s sometimes a stigma or shame or fear about doing that, which can lead to someone not reaching out in those times.”

Intergenerational communication is key. “Make sure you aren’t forgetting about older family members,” she said.

Get involved

Provided you follow safety protocols, there are opportunities to volunteer.

Send cards to health care workers and first responders. Mow an elderly neighbor’s lawn. Donate to food banks.

“Certainly showing compassion and really trying to contribute to the greater good right now—obviously while being safe,” Dr. Richards said.

“That sense of connection to the greater good is what helps us get through difficult times,” she said. “We have to recognize we’re doing this for the safety of other people, ultimately.

“That can boost your own mood and foster a sense of connection.”

Get nostalgic

Don’t mistake nostalgia for sadness. Pulling out old photos and reading old letters from friends and family can improve your perception.

“Allowing yourself to reflect back on the positive experience of those treasured memories and savoring those can actually help to buffer against loneliness,” Dr. Richards said. “It’s something you can do without making social contact.”

Perhaps the one silver lining to a pandemic is the reclassification of priorities—placing renewed emphasis on relationships and spending time together.

“It gives us space to step back and focus and reflect on what’s important,” she said. “And it helps us be more mindful of those experiences going forward.”