One of the best ways to cope with anxiety and uncertainty is to lean into them. 

During this novel Coronavirus pandemic, people are finding a sense of calm and normalcy by serving others and seizing opportunities to make the best of a challenging situation. Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (ESV Bible). Some are enjoying the gift of having fewer activities, a break from work, or more free time in the schedule. Others are blessed with multiple people living under one roof, providing ample opportunity for quality family time spent together (and, yes, I acknowledge that this may not always feel like a blessing).  

Still, others of all ages live alone. Perhaps this is a group you fall into? Perhaps you know someone living isolated from practically everyone right now? Many in this category are elderly individuals; unfortunately, they are also among the highest risk group for COVID-19. They are cut-off from neighbors, friends, and their usual social circles. Some are not able to seek routine medical treatment as facilities are closed or unavailable for non-emergencies. I encourage our communities to raise collective awareness of this specific population right now. 

We can truly lean into those living alone during this season and figure out ways to come alongside them, offering encouragement and assistance that will bless them and help us stay focussed on serving rather than worrying. 

Here are a few simple action steps to start implementing:

First, we can pick up the phone to let someone know we care. 

This simple act conveys that they are valuable and significant. Often times, the elderly feel unseen and insignificant because American society tends to emphasize productivity and the workplace. Younger singles can feel the same way because so many things revolve around couples or families. During this time of extreme isolation, both singles and the elderly are more isolated than those of us with families or housemates.  A simple phone call or video chat can lessen their anxiety by letting them know they have an unseen support network and are not alone. It also literally fills up some of the space in unscheduled and sometimes very long, lonely days. In addition, it gives them the opportunity to connect socially, which we all need regardless of being more introverted or able to fill our days with meaningful solitary activities.

Secondly, we can support people in practical ways. 

If you’re still able to run errands out and about, while taking appropriate precautions and utilizing social distancing, you can be the hands and feet of those who cannot get out themselves. Pick up prescriptions, groceries, or other essentials. While many grocery stores offer home delivery, elderly individuals and those living alone can be reticent to invite strangers to their doorstep or feel hesitant utilizing new technology and services. If you’re cooking more than usual, offer to drop off dinner on their doorstep for a no-contact delivery option. Cooking habits often change when people live alone, but that doesn’t mean their tastes necessarily have. Consider leaving a bouquet of flowers or a thoughtful gift. Small children often enjoy creating crafts or coloring pictures to give special people in your lives. Even a note with written encouragement can go a long ways. In a time when human touch is all but non-existent for some, these small, tangible offers of help can be a practical ‘touch’ from you. 

Finally, consider the individual and prioritize them as such. 

Do they utilize technology a lot? Are they like my own in-laws who use flip phones and have never accessed the internet? Even flip phone users can receive a photo or a picture of a comic strip to help lighten the mood. The more they embrace technology, the more options you may have to connect. Most iPhone users can easily figure out how to pick up a Facetime call. Perhaps they’re brave enough to try Google Meet or another video platform like WhatsApp or Marco Polo. Maybe they would even be open to downloading an online gaming app that you could play together in two separate locations, or interacting through Facebook? Try to format communication in a way that works best for the individual, even if it’s not the most convenient for you. It may take some gentle guidance to share new platforms and options, but that time spent on your part might open a whole new world to them that will bless them long after the isolation ends.

Focusing on the individual also means accepting one’s personal choices and boundaries. 

Are they wearing gloves to their mailbox and spraying down their mail with Lysol before opening it? Are they still doing their own shopping multiple days per week? Just like the rest of us, seniors have their own preferences for independence and their own ideas about safety, risk, and levels of anxiety. Be respectful of their points of view, regardless of whether or not they are aligned with yours. If it is your parents or another close relative, you may find that their personal choices trigger your own fears — fear of them getting sick, fear of them exposing others unknowingly, and even fears of them dying. 

It is not your job to parent or control them. 

You may have certain influence in their decisions, but unless they are incapacitated mentally, they should be allowed the freedom to live, and even die, as they choose. Remember that you can only control YOUR OWN actions and responses, not those of others. Respectfully express your concerns and then find healthy ways to manage your own fear and discomfort if they continue to disagree. It is not worth cutting off or ending a relationship in order to stand squarely in your own perspective of what is “right” vs. what is “wrong.” Now is the time we need each other the most. Find ways to come together while still allowing for individuality and differences of opinion. 

Being kind and serving others is something we’ve seen played out in many different ways throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending a bit more time paying attention to those that are living alone or who are more vulnerable is not only kind, it is right. It is the way Jesus modeled loving others when he was on Earth — he sought out the sick, paralyzed, lonely, and forgotten. He drew the shut-ins out into the light, and stood in solidarity with those who had lived as outcasts. Good deeds and kind gestures trigger the release of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin, all hormones which lead to better mental health and good feelings in you! Just watch a birthday parade, the likes of which are happening on streets all across town, and see if you don’t feel your happiness level rise. If you find yourself feeling blue, trapped, insignificant, powerless, or hopeless, try looking for someone you can bless. Finding ways to serve others in the face of challenging times not only makes the world we all share a kinder, better place to live, but it also gives your day increased purpose and meaning while helping you feel better about your own situation. 

Written by Heidi Tillotson

Professional Counselor, MA, LMFT Intern
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