As the coronavirus pandemic causes widespread orders to practice social distancing, millions of people are now spending days confined to their homes. On top of the anxiety around the illness itself, staying inside and isolated from support networks can have a serious impact on mental health. Experts say now's the time to check in with family and friends who are isolated.
"Social distancing, the idea of deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid the spread of illness, has proven to be effective in other countries and will be a critical component of our response here in the U.S.," Dr. Scott Kaiser M.D., a family medicine practitioner specializing in geriatric care, tells Bustle.
"The process of self-isolating can be challenging for some and freeing for others," clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D. tells Bustle.
The elderly people in your life are in particular need of check-ins right now, especially those who live alone, experts say. They might not have the capacity to video chat, are more likely to have limited mobility, and are more at risk of complications from the coronavirus — plus, loneliness is a huge issue for elderly people. Feeling lonely can also be a concern for friends who live by themselves.
Here's what to say when check in on your friends and family to make them feel more connected.
"So What's Going On With You?"
"It’s important to stay in touch with friends who are self-isolating, but to keep the connection as normal and supportive as possible," Dr. Klapow says. "Asking them how they are doing repeatedly will remind them that they are self-isolating and over time can cause distress." Instead, he recommends normal check-ins every few days, coupled with longer video or phone conversations. People who are feeling anxious or cooped up might react better to the reach-out without an implication that anything is seriously wrong.
"Can We Video Chat?"
If your friends or family members aren't open about how they're coping, do some video chatting. "This is a fantastic way to check in and assess if they're doing OK, emotionally, mentally, and physically," life coach Elizabeth Pearson tells Bustle. "It’s easy for someone who’s struggling to text that they are doing fine, but it’s harder for them to fake a deteriorating mental state on a video call." Setting up a group chat with other friends or family members can make it into a cheerful event rather than a reminder of these difficult times. You can also use video chats for a whole host of entertaining things, like marathoning Elite together.
"What's Keeping You Going Right Now?"
Rather than being prescriptive about what your friend or relative must do to keep themselves healthy, Dr. Klapow advises asking questions about what they're into right now. "Asking them what they are doing, and what their day is like, will give you important information about their well being. Are they getting out of bed? Are they engaged in any level of activity? These are strong functional indicators of good mental health and well-being."
It's also a great way to share positive things: you can talk about what's keeping you cheerful and busy (watching Elementary, baking, trying a new yoga livestream), and listen to their own ideas and techniques. You might be inspired to try something new just because they love it.
"Do You Know How Much I Love Talking To You?"
If your relative or friend resists being checked on, rephrase your inquiries to make them about yourself. "Instead of making them feel like you’re checking in, phrase it as if it’s you who needs them," Pearson tells Bustle. "It will make them feel valued and supported if they understand that needing connection is a two-way street and you’ll both benefit." Nannas always love to be told how much their grandkids love them, too.
"Do You Want To Meditate Or Exercise Together?"
This may not be the most practical piece of advice for people chatting to grandparents or the elderly, but if you and a friend want to do something together, it can be a good idea to try exercising or meditating together on Zoom. "Both meditation and physical activity relieve stress and get the endorphins flowing, so if your friend has bailed on prioritizing these, they may be more vulnerable to experiencing depression or other mental health illnesses," Pearson says.
She suggests committing to a few sessions together, to keep you both accountable and also make sure they're taking care of themselves. Plus it's a good way to giggle if you're trying to do the same ballet pose from a Youtube video and fail completely.
"I'm Available To Chat At These Times — When Are You Around?"
Sometimes being helpful for people who are isolated and struggling can be as simple as just saying you're around. "Letting them know that you are a text or call away for anything, even just to listen to them, will give them the permission to reach out if things are not going well," Dr. Klapow says.
Just Spend Time Listening
If your friend or family member wants to chat about all the things they're missing, or just talk about the crossword, it's a good time to listen to them. "Asking them if they’d like to talk, and spending time listen to their concerns, will give you a better sense of how they are doing," Dr. Klapow says. Adapt yourself to their communication style. This is particularly helpful when it comes to elderly relatives and those who are very isolated from others right now. And sit back and listen; you never know what you might learn.
Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Dr. Scott Kaiser M.D., physician and geriatrician
Elizabeth Pearson, life coach