The COVID-19 pandemic, and the accompanying closures, cancellations and financial upheavals are all having a major impact on our collective mental health. Whether you’re younger or older, healthy or living with underlying conditions, everyone is anxious right now.
Notably, many of us are grieving. We’re grieving our loss of independence and individual spontaneity as more of our favorite restaurants and businesses close down, and we’re forced to stay at home more. We are losing our comforting routines, and many of us are feeling lonely and disconnected.
Senior citizens, who we all know are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, may also suffer disproportionately during this time for another reason: increased social isolation. More than 8 million American adults over the age of 50 are already living isolated lives—and the negative health effects of social isolation (including a weakened immune system) will only increase for seniors unless we make special efforts to reach out to them during this time.
So, what do we do? How can we process our collective grief, and learn to live with uncertainty? How can we feel more empowered to help our families, friends and neighbors, even though we can’t have as contact with them in-person?
The answer lies in sharing. Sharing comes in many forms, and adopting an open, community-minded attitude has many health benefits—and there are many ways to do so while social distancing. Here are some simple, meaningful steps you can take to share more with these individuals and others in your community in uncertain times.
Share Your Food
Got an avocado, orange or lemon tree heavy with fruit you can never consume by yourself? Call a neighbor who may have difficulty leaving the house to see if they’d like to take some of that fresh produce off your hands, or simply ring the doorbell and leave a few edibles on the front step with a kind note. Your thoughtfulness will stay with them long after the fruits and vegetables have been eaten.
Think also of what’s in your freezer and pantry. Do you really need all that canned food? Frozen bread loaves? Paper towel rolls? Call a few friends and neighbors who may have a medical condition that prevents them from completing errands right now and offer to share some of these basic supplies.
Share Your Love
Kindness is a renewable and unlimited resource. Give some! Call, text or email five people you know every day, just to say hello, even if you haven’t spoken in a while. Write your “Christmas letter” in March, or email it to all of your friends, and get the exchange going early. If you belong to any online communities, such as geography or hobby-based groups on Facebook or NextDoor, post something meaningful and uplifting there.
Share Your Skills
If you’re fairly technologically savvy, offer to remotely coach your elderly friends, relatives and neighbors on how to use DoorDash to get food delivered, or order supplies from Amazon or another favorite store. Encourage them and others around you to join a Facebook group centered around a favorite topic, so that everyone can focus on something positive. You can do this over the phone, Skype, Facebook messenger…any mode of communication that works for you!
Share Your Sense of Curiosity
Many museums, nonprofits and other organizations are offering virtual tours or classes to keep everyone’s mind sharp while we’re socially distancing. San Diego Oasis, the nonprofit organization I have the privilege of leading, offers lifelong learning classes for people 50 and older. We transitioned to virtual learning this week—and if our members (some of whom are in their 90s) can master it, so can you. Commit to learning something new during this time and encourage others in your life to do the same.
While it’s not as urgent of a public health concern as the COVID-19 virus, social isolation is a killer. We have to fight it. Acknowledging everyone’s mental health challenges and reaching out to each other during this time is just as important as making sure everyone is stocked on basic supplies. Oasis offers a virtual Grieving Support Group, and many other organizations offer free mental health resources right now as well.
Our attitudes are the only thing we can control when we’re facing so many unknowns. Embracing an attitude of sharing and encouraging others to do the same is how we can truly watch out for each other.
Simona Valanciute is the president and CEO of San Diego Oasis, a nonprofit organization helping people aged 50 and over to pursue healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles, and community service.