The holidays can be the best time of year but for some, it may not be so joyful.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse for those who often feel alone during the holidays.
“COVID-19 has really had an impact on our older adult population especially those who were already socially isolated. Now, because of the virus, many are avoiding any contact with others because they’re more susceptible to COVID-19. To protect themselves, they know they have to be isolated from others,” said Josi Makon, Older Adult Behavioral Health Coordinator for Montgomery County Health and Human Services.
Makon said the pandemic serves as one of the leading causes of social isolation among seniors. Other sources contributing to social isolation include place of residence, limited transportation, limited finances and an inadequate network of social support.
In addition, Makon said ageism represents a form of discrimination that seniors may experience and which often contributes to their feeling lonely or disconnected from society.
“Just because someone is older [it] doesn’t necessarily mean that their life is done [and] that they can’t still contribute,” Makon said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are major health risks that are attributed to loneliness in older adults. Social isolation in seniors “was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia,” according to the CDC. Loneliness also tends to be “associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide,” according to the CDC.
Paul Baylor, a veteran in the District, said the holidays are particularly hard for him because he’s estranged from his family and has been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety.
“I used to cry all of the time. I couldn’t go to Thanksgiving dinners [or] Christmas gatherings because I missed my mother and father so much. My mother died on New Year’s Eve, so that’s another time that’s traumatic for me. But I’ve grown stronger and found ways to get on with life,” he said.
Loneliness and social isolation represent two different challenges and are not the same thing. According to the CDC, loneliness is defined by feeling alone regardless of the amount of social interaction that a person may or may not have. Social isolation, however, represents “a lack of social connections” which the CDC says can lead to loneliness.
Senior centers, Makon said, serve as a benefit for older adults because they’re a way for them to be engaged with others and create bonds and friendships which can broaden their social circle. She said while people often assume that as adults become older, they become grumpy or depressed, the notion counts as more fiction than fact.
“Getting older doesn’t naturally lead to depression or to suicidal tendencies,” she said. “People can still enjoy a healthy, fruitful life no matter what their age may be.”