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Viewpoint: This holiday season, remember our isolated and lonely friends and neighbors

By Amy Burt, associate medical director at UCare

The holiday season is here. Many of us are counting down the days to festive gatherings attended by friends and family.

Just for a moment, imagine yourself gathered around the table at one of these events. Picture your loved ones, the prepared food, the swapped stories and the shared laughs. Now, picture yourself on the outside of the group, watching from afar as everyone enjoys the party. That image illustrates how isolation can feel to individuals experiencing loneliness.

Not sure what I'm talking about? Well, you're probably familiar with the emotions associated with loneliness that each of us feel from time to time. But loneliness on a long-term basis can have serious mental, physical and financial consequences. For instance, did you know that our bodies react to long-term loneliness the same way we react to chronic stress? When we're consistently lonely, we are more likely to get sick, develop heart disease, experience sleeplessness and have depression.

As a doctor, friend and person, I've both professionally observed and personally felt the pain of loneliness and isolation. I studied the impact of long-term loneliness and saw the healing power of meaningful connections. I found when people described a time they felt their best, they usually described an experience shared with others. Personal connections make good times better and rough times more tolerable.

With the help of patients and friends, I developed a library of ideas and resources to help isolated and lonely people build those connections. One resource is technology, which can be especially useful to remotely connect with people.

For example: My friend's mother in New York was unable to travel. As a result, she was lonely and isolated from her family. But with the help of video technology, my friend's mother now joins her family through FaceTime so she is present during meal preparation. She even offers recipe tips and shares family stories in real-time with her grandchildren.

If you are experiencing loneliness, or you anticipate you'll have a hard time during this holiday season, make a plan to do something. Work to connect with friends — even remotely via video chat.

Not sure if you know someone experiencing loneliness? People are not usually comfortable admitting they are struggling. In fact, they may feel ashamed or embarrassed. As a result, it can be difficult to spot, so consider the common triggers: medical conditions including diabetes and hearing impairment, retirement, losing a spouse or relocating can all bring about feelings of loneliness.

If you do know someone experiencing loneliness or you're reaching out to someone who recently experienced one of the triggers, don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. I recommend setting a time in advance to connect and reach out.

Keep in mind that it can sometimes feel awkward to address loneliness. To avoid that, make a point to connect over a specific shared interest. Have topics in advance to talk about. A great place to start is by asking open-ended questions. Don't say, "You're lonely and I am here to help you." Instead say, "Teach me how to..." or "Tell me about..." or "Remember when...". Think outside the box. For example, if your friend likes to read, read the same book and discuss it. If your friend enjoys playing cards, find a game you can play together even if you're not in the same place. Again, technology can be useful to connect with people who aren't able to leave their homes.

Our Minnesota cold, dark winters — combined with the holiday season — can be hard on many of us. But the cure for loneliness is simple, inexpensive and a gift that keeps on giving. It just takes a little added effort to build connections.

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