Loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic: Fight it with kindness

Some people have been alone for months. Now is the perfect time to share a little act of kindness with people who are alone and may be experiencing the holiday blues.
Dec. 10, 2020
loneliness during COVID-19 pandemic. It's common to feel lonely now. Fight it with kindness.
Loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic has been common. Now is the perfect time to reach out to those who have been alone for months. Photo: Getty Images.

Sadness is common during the holidays every year, but the need to isolate ourselves this year has triggered a secondary epidemic of loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For those who are feeling profoundly lonely now, help is available and many, many others are suffering as well. It’s important to know that loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic has been common and that sadness and depression can be worse for everyone during the December holiday season.

For those experiencing the flip side of loneliness, crowded homes that feel too full of hungry, needy people — all competing for attention and internet access — you might have momentarily forgotten your friends, loved ones and relatives who have been mostly alone for months.

While your list of things to do may be long, practicing acts of kindness actually can energize and warm the souls of both the person who is doing something kind and the recipient of a thoughtful deed.

Rachel Slick is a behavioral health specialist who sees patients at UCHealth Internal Medicine – Greeley.

She has been helping many people who have barely left their homes since March.

“Many are older adults who are retired. Maybe they’ve lost a spouse or their children are grown and the kids have their own lives. They’ve been very responsible with quarantining. Some have only left the house for grocery pickups or a doctor’s appointment,” said Slick, a licensed clinical social worker.

And some are feeling especially sad and lonely now.

Loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic has been common

Slick reassures her patients that depression during the dark days of December is common and has an official diagnosis: Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. People who suffer from SAD may need extra doses of light and Vitamin D.

Rachel Slick headshot. She's an expert on behavioral health and explains how loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic has been common.
Rachel Slick is a behavioral health specialist and said many of her patients have been coping with loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Danna Fryer, courtesy of Rachel Slick.

“Lack of exposure to the sun at this time of year can contribute to our moods,” Slick said.

She also said the holidays are common times for people to take stock. Grief from the loss of a loved one can feel profound again, just as it does when we encounter other milestones like birthdays and anniversaries. We also compare ourselves to others during the holidays when beautiful light displays and gorgeous holiday cards make it appear that others are living glossy, perfect lives.

“There’s this societal expectation that it will be the most joyful, wonderful time of the year. It we feel anything other than that, we feel lonely,” Slick said.

In reality, many people struggle this time of year, and after all the tough battles of 2020, it’s normal to feel loss, grief, sadness and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Slick encourages her patients to give themselves a pass on feeling merry right now.

“Everyone is learning to manage expectations. I do a lot of coaching with people. It’s OK if you’re not feeling very joyful right now. Don’t beat yourself up. Acknowledge that Christmas is going to be a challenge, especially if people are getting together somewhere and you are not part of that group,” Slick said.

Here are some of Slick’s specific recommendations to help lonely people feel better. If you are someone who isn’t lonely, but can do some random acts of kindness, we’ll provide recommendations for you below.

How to cope with loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Make plans for a day you know will be tough, whether it’s your favorite night of Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s or a deceased loved-one’s birthday or anniversary. “Every human needs to feel connected to someone,” Slick said.
  • Anticipation of joy brings joy. So, start making plans now. Maybe you can do something as simple as an evening drive to see beautiful holiday lights in your neighborhood.
  • Like the old telephone commercials used to say, “Reach out and touch someone.” Schedule a phone call, a video chat, a round of online games or a special meal, even if you must share the meal remotely with loved ones who can’t be with you in person. “Look forward to when you’ll see or hear from someone you love,” Slick said.
  • Hold yourself accountable. Mark your plans on your calendar, then follow through and show up.
  • Move at least a little each day. Whether you like to dance, do yoga or go for a walk, try to find a way to move. Thankfully, there are plenty of online classes that you can participate in from home. So, even if you’re alone, you can “join” a class online.
  • Adopt a pet. Puppies and kittens are a lot of work. But, if you love pets, consider adopting an older dog or cat. Just make sure that the benefits will outweigh any challenges, including the costs of owning and caring for a pet, Slick said. And, if you haven’t owned a pet in the past and aren’t prepared for years of love and commitment, consider a temporary gig. Maybe you can foster a pet or offer to take a friend’s dog on a socially-distant walk.
  • On ordinary days, stick with your regular routine and celebrate that you are making it through another day during a difficult time. “The concept of self-care is overused. But it’s important to get enough sleep, get up, bathe, eat, drink water and go to your doctor’s appointments,” Slick said. “Sometimes going through the motions is enough.”
  • Focus on gratitude. Appreciate the simple parts of your day that you like. Enjoy your morning coffee or the view of the stars and the moon at night. Slick said that if we get in the habit of being grateful for small things, we’ll carry that positive attitude forward with us even after the winter ends and the pandemic eases.
  • If you are lonely, do something kind for someone else. “Everyone is feeling this. We are not alone. There are people on both ends of the lifespan who are alone. It’s universal,” said Slick. And, acts of kindness are healthy for both the giver and the recipient.

So, if you are not lonely, what can you do for someone who is? Start by checking in with the people who have been living alone. Call. See how they are doing and consider dropping off a little something.

“Multiple small gestures will go farther than one large gesture,” Slick said.

So, if you have a relative or friend who you know is alone and could be feeling lonely, schedule a weekly phone call, Slick said.

Or consider these other acts of kindness to help reduce loneliness for a friend, neighbor or relative:

  • Drop off a note and some food at a friend or neighbor’s door. It can be simple. Make a loaf of pumpkin bread, drop off some fruit or give someone a few cookies.
  • When you’re cooking a meal, make a little extra and drop it off for someone who is alone. You can wear a mask and speak from afar at the door both when you drop off the food and when the person returns the container, giving you two opportunities for a brief, cheerful, socially-distant, in-person interaction.
  • Have children make cards for people who are alone. Any drawing or card from a child will cheer up a lonely person.
  • Gussy up your home with holiday lights. Strangers and friends alike can walk or drive past your home and the glow of festive lights can make them feel happier and less alone.
  • Offer to walk a friend’s dog.
  • Send a real, old-fashioned letter or even an old postcard to someone who might be lonely. Or, if you have extra time, send a care package. You can fill it with silly items like socks and sweets. The thought truly does count.
  • Drop off a book at a person’s house or create a Little Free Library outside your home so people out walking can select a book to read or drop off one to share.
  • Create an online travel club. Someday, when the pandemic ends, we’ll all be able to travel again. Until then, you can make plans, enjoy stories and photos from trips in the past or fantasize about future adventures.
  • Make cards for nursing home residents.
  • Donate money to your local mental health agency. People who are coping with behavioral health challenges during the pandemic often feel alone, which can aggravate pre-existing behavioral health issues.
  • Set up a regular delivery of a food item from a local company. Would a family member enjoy eggnog now or a regular delivery of cream or milk? Set up a delivery. Or make arrangements with your favorite restaurant for a delivery of a special meal.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.