Published on September 11, 2020
Coping With Loneliness and Isolation as a Cancer Patient
Even before COVID-19 forced people to socially distance, loneliness was considered an epidemic.
A 2019 survey by Cigna found that three in five Americans (61%) reported that they were lonely, a seven percentage-point increase from 2018.
The problem may be more severe among those 50 years of age or older, according to the book Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults. That group is more likely to experience many of the risk factors that can cause or exacerbate social isolation or loneliness, such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and sensory impairments, the book says.
Add a cancer diagnosis and the pandemic, and it’s the perfect storm for sadness, depression, anxiety and worsening health problems; loneliness increases the risk for dementia, coronary heart disease, stroke, and death.
“All life involves some risk,” says Dr. Eleanor Feldman Barbera, a New York City psychologist who specializes in aging, behavioral health and caregiving. “Everyone has a different comfort level with risk and has to do what feels right for them. The challenge with COVID-19 is to find a balance between the risk of getting COVID and the risk of loneliness and isolation.”
Here are seven expert tips on how to cope with or manage loneliness:
- Understand your risk for contracting the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Talk with your healthcare team about your risk based on your age, health status and co-morbid conditions, says Dr. Kelly Trevino, an assistant attending psychologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Your doctor may be able to make recommendations on how to minimize these risks based on your individual health and situation, she says. You may be able to do a “distanced” walk with friends, Dr. Barbera says. Even sitting by the window can help you feel engaged with the world.
- Establish a healthy routine to help set a new normal. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Eat meals at regular times. “Some people say that getting dressed in ‘real clothes’ (not pajamas) every day improves their mood,” Dr. Trevino says. “Creating a daily schedule that you follow, even if it’s for tasks around the house, can help you stay and feel productive.”
- Reach out to friends and family. You may feel like your family members and friends should reach out to you. But if that’s not the case, call them, Dr. Barbera says. Dr. Brian Carpenter, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University St. Louis, agrees. “This isn’t a time to be shy,” he says. “It’s a time when patients can be more proactive in reaching out to people themselves, initiating phone calls, initiating online chats, video sessions with people they haven’t talked to in a while.” Schedule regular calls/chats to give yourself something to look forward to.
- Volunteer from home. Consider work-from-home volunteer opportunities, such as moderating an online support group, writing letters to military personnel serving overseas, or making face masks for front-line workers. “Being of service is a great way to reduce loneliness and isolation,” Dr. Barbera says.
- Find creative ways to stay connected. Set up lawn chairs in your driveway six feet apart, wear masks and visit with family or neighbors. Or “drive-by” family and friends’ houses and wave hello. “These activities are certainly not as effective for many as hugs and shared meals but are better than remaining alone,” Dr. Trevino says. If you are terminal, you might not be able to do the things on your bucket list, such as traveling. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have goals, Dr. Carpenter says. He suggests talking with your palliative or hospice care team to help you rethink what being meaningfully and purposefully engaged looks like in the time you have left.
- Find meaning in small things. “Think about what is meaningful and important to you and how to make these things a central part of every day,” Dr. Trevino says. “This can be difficult under normal circumstances; it is particularly difficult during a pandemic.” She suggested if you are stuck, a mental healthcare provider can help you organize your life around what is most important to you.
- Focus on the present moment. Most (if not all) older adults have probably lived through difficult times in the past. “Remembering these prior experiences and the skills you developed during these times is a good reminder that bad situations end and that you have the ability to deal with difficult situations,” Dr. Trevino says. “Focusing on the present rather than trying to manage what may (or may not) happen in the future is less overwhelming and less stressful.”
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- The Power of Touch During COVID-19
- Cancer and COVID-19: Coping With Anxiety
- Community and Gratitude in the Time of Coronavirus