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The holidays are a time for gathering together with friends and family and celebrating the joy of being around those we love. At least, that’s the case for some of us. For others, the holiday season is an unfortunate reminder of just how alone they are.

“It’s a sad fact that the happiest time of year – the holidays – can also be the saddest time of year for many,” says Mary Scott Russell, Director of Community Relations of East Ridge at Cutler Bay, Miami-Dade County’s only true Life Plan Community. “This is especially true for older adults, whose social circles often shrink as they age. Whether it’s because family members have moved away, they’ve lost their spouse or friends have retired to other towns, it’s easy to see why loneliness is such a big concern for senior adults.”

Loneliness can happen to anyone who doesn’t have meaningful connections with others. And it’s more than just a happiness issue; loneliness can actually affect our physical and mental health, too. Studies have shown that feeling isolated or lonely can be as detrimental to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It also has more of a severe impact on mortality than being sedentary, being obese or having a health issue like diabetes. Loneliness also increases an individual’s risk of cognitive decline and can spur the onset of symptoms of dementia.

In a 2020 study, researchers discovered that mood disorders like depression or anxiety increase the risk of social isolation and loneliness. It makes sense when you think about it – people who are depressed are more likely to be lonely, and those who are lonely are more likely to be depressed. Furthermore, people who are lonely are more prone to depression and at greater risk of cognitive decline.

“As we enter the holiday season, this is a great time for those of us with seniors in our life to reach out and help find ways to combat loneliness,” says Mary. “The good news is that loneliness doesn’t have to be a lingering problem. All it takes is reaching out.”

If you’re looking for ways to help seniors in your life combat loneliness, here are four tips that can help you share the love this holiday season (and beyond) and help protect your senior loved ones’ mental, physical and emotional health.

  1. Communicate often.

Many seniors can go days without getting out of the house or speaking to anyone at all. This is especially true if an older adult has difficulty getting around, is in poor health or has problems with transportation. While nothing beats a face-to-face visit, that isn’t always possible due to distance (or, in the case of 2020, COVID-19). Luckily, there are many options to help people stay in touch with loved ones. Phone calls, video chats or even a text message or email are all ways to stay in touch with your older adult. Don’t limit your communication for just the holiday – make it a priority to reach out on a regular basis before, during and after the holidays. Even a 15 to 30 minute conversation once a week can be life-changing for your loved one. It’s also a great opportunity for you to learn more about your loved one by asking for advice or having them share stories from their past.

  1. Help loved ones find opportunities to socialize in their community.

Is your senior loved one part of a church community? Or is there a local senior center nearby? There are many organizations in the community where people of all ages can get together for fun, events and other group activities. Do some research and offer to join your loved one on a visit to different places so they can get a feel for what it’s like (and they don’t feel like they’re the odd one out). Many senior living communities have events that are open to the public, especially during the holidays, which is a great way for your loved one to meet people in a similar stage of life.

  1. Find different activities and hobbies for your loved ones to explore.

What sort of activities does your loved one enjoy doing? Are there hobbies that they used to do in the past but have somehow fallen by the wayside? Not only would finding out what these are be a great starter for your gift list, but it’s also a chance for you to help them find new things to try and enjoy. Even activities that seem solitary have the opportunity to become social. Does your loved one enjoy reading? Why not join a book club? Quilters and knitters can join circles where others gather to chat and enjoy a favorite pastime. Look into adult education classes at community colleges or senior centers near your loved one for idea starters.

  1. Find sources to help your loved one combat loneliness.

Loneliness and depression can strike anytime between visits, activities and calls. For those times, identify sources and options that your older loved one can call on for help. One great option is Mental Health America, which has a support community that has individuals online 24/7 to communicate and provide support – a great option for a senior who’s savvy with the Internet. For those who prefer speaking over the phone, the Friendship Line at Institute on Aging is the nation’s only accredited 24-hour, toll-free hotline for older and disabled adults. Seniors can call 1-800-971-0016, or family members can schedule outbound emotional support calls for their older loved ones. Finally, there are many support groups and areas in the community themselves and visiting your local Area Agency on Aging can help put you in contact with many of them.

“We recognize the isolation risk for our residents, which is why we are being proactive about caring for them and providing ways for them to connect with loved ones,” says Mary. “We hold regular, virtual one-on-one meetings and small group meetings with a psychologist for any resident who may be experiencing loneliness or isolation. Our goal is always to provide a safe environment for our residents to feel heard and supported so we can find avenues to help them stay connected, healthy and happy, especially during the holiday season.”

“We encourage loved ones to remember that it doesn’t matter how you reach out or what you say; what’s important is simply connecting with your senior loved one,” says Mary. “The act shows that you’re thinking about them, that you care and that they are important to you. That’s something everyone wants and needs to feel, both at the holidays and during the rest of the year, too.”

About East Ridge at Cutler Bay

East Ridge at Cutler Bay is Miami-Dade County’s only true Life Plan Community. The nonprofit community draws from the neighborhood charm of suburban Cutler Bay and the vibrancy of Miami in a lush tropical setting of 76 acres, located at 19301 SW 87th Avenue. The community offers a continuum of care including independent living, assisted living and memory support residences in a neighborhood setting, and skilled nursing and rehabilitation services available within Three Palms Health Center.

For more information or to schedule a tour, please call 305-256-3564.