The song says that this is “the most wonderful time of the year.” But for millions of Americans, tens of millions, it is hardly that. Even in good times, the holidays can be terrible for those who are sick, needy or alone.
It has been a particularly difficult year for seniors. Not only have they borne the brunt of the terrible coronavirus, but lockdowns have reinforced the loneliness and disconnect that many older Americans feel. Nearly one-third of Americans over the age of 65 live alone, says the U.S. Census Bureau, and studies show that such isolation is correlated with a variety of health problems—both physical and mental. Zoom is no substitute for hugging a grandchild.
“I’m very concerned about anxiety, depression and stress levels,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, is director of nutritional lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and the author of a new book “This Is Your Brain on Food.” She worries the combination of winter and a resurgent pandemic will make things worse.
So what—besides hopefully getting a COVID-19 vaccination—can seniors do to protect their health?
There are three areas to focus on: Eating well, exercising and staying engaged with others. Incorporating two out of three into your life is good, but to really add luster to your golden years, you’ve got to do them all. Naidoo says we’re not talking big adjustments here, and offers one small example: Try adding some turmeric—with pepper—in your coffee or tea. Just a pinch of pepper will do.
“Turmeric is very good at fighting inflammation,” Naidoo says. “It’s a wonderful antioxidant, and a small amount of pepper boosts its impact even further.” You can also add turmeric and that pinch of pepper to soups and salads.
Eating properly can “boost your mood, stave off depression (and) help your cognitive health, Naidoo says. It’s common sense, but bears repeating: Make sure you’re eating fresh fruits and vegetables, along with beans, seeds and healthy fats. Between concerns about social distancing and the onset of winter, it may be harder to go shopping, but Naidoo suggests getting someone to help, or using a delivery service. Frozen foods are fine, too, because in the United States fruits and vegetables are flash frozen, “and unless they have added salt, sugar or syrup, they’re pretty healthy, so this could be a good option,” she says. She’s especially big on wild blueberries and says don’t forget to get your Omega-3s, which are found in salmon—even canned salmon will do—and tuna.
Stay plugged in
Loneliness can speed cognitive decline, says a study by the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging. It said the risk of Alzheimer’s nearly doubled in lonely adults, and mental decline was even faster. Staying engaged with others is a must.
I mentioned that Zoom is no substitute for hugging a grandchild, but seeing a bright young face and talking with them is still pretty good. Skype, FaceTime, even the old-fashioned phone. Just hearing someone’s voice can be a wonderful remedy to loneliness and winter blues.
“Interaction can help keep the brain sharp,” Naidoo says.
My 84-year old mom, in her mask, talks each morning on her 40-minute walk with a neighbor. She’s also part of a masked knitting club that makes little hats and blankets for the maternity ward at a nearby hospital. “It feels good to help others,” Mom says.
Lockdowns and winter are certainly good times to read good books, work puzzles, or take an online class. MoneyPantry.com has collected a list of online providers that offer courses in, well, everything, it seems. Want to study art? Learn a new language? Sit in—for free—on classes from Harvard and Oxford? You can find something here that floats your boat. Keep learning, thinking and expanding your mind.
A year ago, you might have gone to a local YMCA or fitness studio for a workout, but now may be reluctant to be around others. Fortunately, the Y and other groups like Silver Sneakers offer online workouts that you can do in your living room whenever you want. I encourage you to look at the Silver Sneakers website; chances are there’s something for you. And here’s a typical class from the Y.
The pandemic and Old Man Winter are good reasons to stay indoors. But that doesn’t mean you have to neglect exercise. Even just 15 minutes a day a few days a week can do wonders for both your physical and mental health. Just. Keep. Moving.
It’s the little things that count. Talking with a friend. Spending a few minutes to prepare a healthy, nutritious meal. Walking, stretching, using your muscles. It’s not only easy to do these things—it’s essential for good health and well-being.
What are you doing to stay healthy and sharp? Tell me your story: Write to RetireBetterMarketWatch@gmail.com.