The holiday season often connotes a time of joy and happiness, but for those who live far from loved ones, the holidays can be extra stressful. Fortunately, there are things you can do to create a sense of community, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University and expert in loneliness research.

1. What happens to many of us, emotionally, around the holidays with regards to connection and the need for community? 

As social beings, the desire for a sense of connection and need for community is not specific to the holidays. However, the holidays can heighten expectations or make unfulfilled expectations more salient.

2. Do older people have more of a problem regarding loneliness than younger people? 

That is a common misconception. Anyone can feel lonely, so loneliness isn’t confined to a particular demographic (nor are the health risks associated with it). However, there are life situations that can put people at greater risk. Physical or mental health impairments, loss of family/friends, living alone (or not near family) can all increase this risk for social isolation or loneliness.  These can sometimes be associated with older age but not necessarily, and we should not assume that all older adults are lonely. In fact, the CIGNA survey found that the highest prevalence of loneliness is among younger adults.

3. What are the mental benefits of connection and finding community?

Those who are more socially connected have reduced risk for depression and greater satisfaction with life and happiness.  Those who are more socially connected also have better sleep which is linked to better mental benefits. Those who are more socially connected have better cognitive function and are also at lower risk for dementia.

4. Can you offer tips on what all of us can do to be less lonely, more connected? 

Some ideas include volunteering, providing support to others, participating in social or community groups (i.e.sports, hobbies, religious, etc) are all ways we can be more socially connected and have been linked to lower risk for loneliness and poorer health.

*5. How can we engage with a loved one who has dementia during family visits and holiday gatherings? 

It’s important to consider what a person with dementia might need, want, or enjoy. For example, someone with mobility issues might prefer to sit quietly with one person at a time. Crowds can be overwhelming. Unless they bring it up, don’t make the past your point of reference, because it can be frustrating. Engage in the moment and use concrete references, like “Look at the leaves on the tree, “Look at the beautiful birds.” Be sure to make eye contact, be gentle, smile, enjoy the interaction, and don’t forget your sense of humor. There is nothing better than making someone laugh!

*Advice From WAM: