As with many of us, 2020 was a challenging year for Eileen Gregory, 75. The risk of COVID-19 kept her isolated much of the time. Her partner of 40 years died in October. Then she developed vertigo and headaches at the start of 2021.
“When all that subsided, I was desperate to be out and about and connecting with people,” says Gregory, a retired college professor in Dallas. She signed up for a drawing class and a pottery course, joined a pottery studio, connected with a group of artists through a cultural center and reconnected with old friends. Now she’s busy with new and old friends.
Like Gregory, many older adults started getting back out again this spring and summer after a year of isolation. With news of a second surge because of the COVID-19 delta variant, some are growing cautious about venturing out or are returning to online options.
Experts say that staying connected, whether virtually or in person, can keep us healthier and happier.
“We’ve known for some time that loneliness has negative health effects, both physical and mental health,” says Dr. Mary “Molly” Camp, a medical doctor and assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center specializing in geriatric mental health. One analysis of multiple studies found that stroke and heart attack risks increased as much as 30% for people who report loneliness. Another showed increased mortality from all causes.
“On the flip side, there are studies that show that people who retire and then become engaged in social groups live longer and have a better quality of life,” Camp says. “There’s not just the detriment of loneliness, but also the positive effect of social engagement.”
Social connections also may help preserve brain health and delay or reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
“If you’re connected to people, you’re more likely to get out of the house, stay active, keep learning, and feel happier and less stressed,” says Bryan James, associate professor at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago. “Having friends who rely on you for friendship and support also creates a sense of purpose, a key factor linked to mental and physical health.”
James cautions that socializing doesn’t prevent dementia. Instead, researchers believe that an active social life boosts one’s cognitive reserves — a kind of mental resilience that allows seniors to tolerate the disease better and function independently longer with it.
Isolation represents such a significant health risk that the Department of Veterans Affairs is piloting an intervention to help veterans, many of them seniors, build stronger social ties. Originally designed for suicide prevention, the Connection program encourages participants to commit to simple steps, such as: “Go the local park three times a week and say hello to people,” or “Call four friends from church on Sunday afternoon and ask how they’re doing.”
Seniors can easily lapse into isolation, even without a pandemic. Socializing gets harder if you can’t get around anymore or if you no longer drive. Once you’re retired, you’re not interacting regularly with co-workers. The older you are, the more likely you are to lose a spouse or close friends to death. About a quarter of people in their 60s and 70s report feeling lonely, and loneliness affects about half of all people in their 80s.
But not Althea Hills, 82. She’s active in her church, Hamilton Park United Methodist in Dallas. Her days are packed, starting at 6:30 a.m. when she heads out to walk her dog Phoebe, usually with a few neighbors and their dogs. Every other day, she takes Phoebe to a nearby hardware store and walks her around the aisles.
Hills always wears a hat, which has become her signature. She says it helps people recognize and remember her.
“‘Lonely’ is not on my calendar,” she jokes. “I like to be out and about. It’s therapeutic.”
Social engagement: a checklist
Now’s a good time to reset and restart your social life. Here are tips to get you started.
Schedule something. Signing up for classes and activities adds structure to your days, especially if you’re retired. Once you’ve made a commitment, you’re more likely to go, even on days when you’re tempted to stay home. “Scheduled activities give you a kind of scaffolding that makes you feel a little less unmoored,” says Eileen Gregory, a retired college professor.
Bring your pet. Martha Heimberg, also a retired college professor in Dallas, takes Robert, her Brittany spaniel, out for daily walks at a favorite trail near her home. “I walk a mile, he runs 10,” she jokes. “But everybody loves Robert. Pets are great conversation starters.” Dog walking offers the added advantage of being outdoors, where it’s easier to socially distance.
Follow your interests. A class or a course that interests you is more likely to connect you with people on your wavelength, and that leads more easily to friendships outside of class. Heimberg takes classes at Richland College’s Emeritus Program for seniors and participates in a long list of groups, including an acting group and the neighborhood association for the Junius Heights Historic District, where she lives.
Keep those tech skills sharp. Yes, you may be feeling Zoomed out these days. But virtual options can still expand and supplement your social life. The Rev. Sharon Larkin, pastor of congregational care at St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas, is proud of the way that seniors in the congregation stepped up to learn technologies during the pandemic. Even though in-person worship has resumed at the church, many meetings are still offered via Zoom or in person with the option to join by Zoom. “Now that I’m comfortable enough with Zoom, we have put all of our meetings, grief counseling and funeral planning on Zoom,” she said. “It’s just easier to do some things virtually. And if someone is sick or can’t drive to the church, they can still participate.”
Make informal ties. Friends are important, but casual connections can enrich your social life, too. Greet and thank the clerk at the grocery store or the barista who makes your coffee. “The gratitude that we normally don’t take time to express can open up conversations with strangers,” Heimberg says.
Think of others. When you make social connections, you don’t just help yourself but may be helping someone who’s lonely. In the VA’s Connection program, caseworkers point this out to encourage veterans who are shy or hesitant. “We remind them, ‘Others are feeling lonely as well,’” says Prasad Padala, a medical doctor who is associate director for clinical innovations with Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System. “This may be a way for you to help them. That works well for veterans. They want to serve.”
Start slow. While many seniors are eager to reconnect in person now that they are vaccinated, Dr. Mary “Molly” Camp, a medical doctor, says some of her clients are a little more hesitant, either feeling out of practice or nervous about the risk of COVID-19 delta variant. Her advice: Ease back in. Instead of jumping into a big gathering, meet one or two people for coffee.
Speak up. Both Althea Hills and Heimberg said they limit most indoor gatherings to groups of friends and family they know are vaccinated against COVID-19. Heimberg moves meetings to her well-ventilated, screened-in porch if anyone feels worried. Don’t be afraid to ask about protocols to stay safe.
Reconnect. Make a phone call, write a letter or look up an old friend on Facebook. Camp says many of her patients reached out by telephone to old friends — friends from high school or someone they knew when their children were young — during the height of the pandemic. That rekindled old friendships and reduced feelings of isolation.
Follow CDC guidelines. In-person gatherings are resuming, but the emergence of COVID-19 variants means the situation is changing. To stay safe and ease your anxiety, stay informed, Larkin advises. “I keep up with what’s happening with COVID and how to stay safe,” she said. “I follow the CDC updates.
Volunteer. Hills, the Hamilton Park United Methodist Church member, volunteers for the church’s Helping Hands ministry, which provides groceries and other items to those in need. Heimberg helps teach literacy to adults. Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose and create new social connections.
Listen. You don’t need to be the life of the party to make friends. “I think people underestimate how important listening is for friendships,” Camp says. “People who are good at making friends are good at getting other people to share themselves.” Larkin agrees. “People are having a tough time these days,” she says. “Learn how to listen with your heart.”
Ways to reconnect
RSVP: The Senior Source’s RSVP program matches volunteers 55 and older with needs in more than 50 community organizations in the Dallas area. Call 214-525-6122.
Dallas College: Most campuses offer continuing education classes for older adults through the Emeritus program. Students over 65 can apply for tuition waiver for credit courses, too. Visit dallascollege.edu/cd/senior-adults.
Collin College: The Seniors Active in Learning (SAIL) program offers low-cost continuing education courses in a variety of subjects for those 55 and up. Courses for the fall 2021 semester courses are online. You don’t need to live in Collin County. Visit collin.edu/sail.
Libraries and senior centers in your community are also a good place to find classes, volunteer opportunities and social gatherings. In Dallas, visit dallaslibrary2.org, dallasparks.org/453/Senior-Programs.
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research