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How to combat dad’s extra loneliness this holiday season

Dear Rita: My 82-year-old father lives alone. His birthday and other holiday celebrations are coming up. I don’t want him to be alone, but I also don’t want him to be exposed to Covid-19 or the flu. He has been so lonely. Suggestions? — S.O., Pleasanton

Dear S.O.: These are very hard times and I understand your worry about your dad’s loneliness. Social isolation is a major health issue, especially in older adults. Its negative effects on well-being and overall health have been well documented.

As the pandemic continues, and older adults and others are trying hard to avoid exposure to Covid-19, the risk of prolonged social isolation will cause further declines in health and well-being.

According to AARP, “It’s not surprising that older adults reported more loneliness since the pandemic began, particularly those who live alone. We need to continue finding ways to connect and engage with one another throughout this public health crisis.”

In the midst of the pandemic, feelings of loneliness may be exacerbated during celebrations and holidays.

As we enter winter and the holiday season, cases of Covid-19 are rising across the globe and our country. We know from evidence that family gatherings are driving up caseloads, so we really should plan on celebrations and holiday gatherings looking different this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies holiday gatherings as a “high-risk activity.” Without wide availability of a vaccine yet, we will need to use common sense and follow recommendations from the medical community and the CDC.

Relying on testing in advance won’t solve these issues. PCR genetic tests, which are the most sensitive, do not typically provide a result for several days. The rapid-response antigen tests are usually faster, but they aren’t as sensitive and can miss some infections.

As families begin to plan for holiday get-togethers, or stay-aparts, looking through the pandemic lens is key in evaluating risks. We all have to find creative ways to create togetherness this year, and there won’t be one size that fits all.

Changes in how we gather will have an obvious impact on people’s loneliness and social isolation, especially among the elderly. Due to prolonged isolation, your father’s mental health may have suffered, so finding ways to connect will be important.

The CDC has been reminding people that the safest thing to do is stay home, and limit your contact to people already in your household. If you decide to get together with other people in addition to your dad, limit the numbers and the duration of the event. Outdoors is better. Masks are essential, as is 6 six feet of physical distancing, as is good hand hygiene.

Before seeing your dad, or other members of the family, discuss and agree on precautions and expectations to ensure everyone’s safety. If extended family or friends will be included, have an honest conversation so you can understand potential exposure that others may have had, and how that may impact your dad’s health.

The goal is to make mindful decisions that will reduce risk.

The safest option would be to do a virtual in-person holiday celebration. There are all kinds of ways you can make a video gathering fun for the family. Play games, listen to music, watch a holiday movie, look at photos together and reminisce. You can even cook special recipes together!

You can continue holiday and birthday traditions by dropping off  his favorite baked goods or dinner or some other festive treat (with social distancing), and a nice gesture would be for you to encourage your dad’s friends and family to drive by his home with decorated cars and signs.

Dad can celebrate with you, as long as you maintain a proper social distance. For example, you could plan an outdoor visit with warm blankets and hot drinks. For any activity, everyone should wash/sanitize their hands regularly, wear masks and maintain at least a 6-foot distance.

Planning and communicating with your dad is the key for all of his. Involve him in everything! Stay engaged with him and encourage your children, other family members and friends to have frequent “contact” with meaningful activities via phone, FaceTime or Zoom. This applies to his birthday, the holiday season and beyond.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has forced people to change the way in which we live and celebrate, it has also presented us with an opportunity to be more mindful, empathic and thoughtful about how to address loneliness and social isolation among older adults. It’s important to remember that each person experiences loneliness and social isolation in their own unique way and our responses should be sensitive and tailored to meet those individual needs.

Rita Clancy
Rita Clancy

Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay. Have questions about your aging parents? Email rclancy@jfcs-eastbay.org.