Since the start of the pandemic, public health models of the progression of COVID-19 have indicated a likely spike in cases and hospitalizations as the weather gets colder. With case counts rising rapidly in Philadelphia and around the country, that spike is clearly upon us. It is safe to say that this winter will be different than any we have experienced before.
The new surge of COVID-19 is hitting at a time of year that is already challenging for many. Colder days and less sunlight can limit activities and opportunities to socialize or spend time outdoors. The holidays can be emotionally taxing. Mental health challenges may become more pronounced this time of year. It can become harder to exercise or to eat well through the winter months. Add in a historic public health crisis and it becomes all the more difficult to care for our physical and emotional wellness.
We know that good nutrition and exercise are important preventative factors against many common age-related health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. It can be difficult to exercise regularly during the winter months even when there isn’t a pandemic. With gyms and senior centers now closed, exercise options may be further limited.
Fortunately, there are several great resources to help individuals exercise safely over the coming months. Many senior centers are offering exercise classes over Zoom or Facebook. Places like the YMCA have transitioned to offering free online classes in yoga, tai chi, cardio, and strength training, with many videos specifically geared to older adults (ymca360.org). Medicare beneficiaries may be eligible to enroll in SilverSneakers (silversneakers.com) and access an array of live and recorded virtual exercise classes. When weather permits, walking outside (with a mask!) can also be great exercise.
Eating healthy while stuck at home can also be a challenge but remains essential to one’s health. Grocery stores will remain open even as stricter restrictions are imposed elsewhere. Ordering groceries to be delivered can save a trip to the grocery store in-person, when possible. If buying food in-person, check to see if local stores have special hours for people at higher risk for COVID, or plan to go at less crowded times such as early in the morning.
The City of Philadelphia is still operating its food sites at several locations around the city for any Philadelphia resident (visit phila.gov/food for a complete list). Many of the senior centers supported by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) are providing meals for pick-up adults age 60 and over (call PCA at 215-765-9040 to find a participating site).
Keeping tabs on our mental health is equally important right now. Staying home more than usual to protect against COVID-19 is necessary, but it can also contribute to isolation and loneliness. It is important that we be proactive in maintaining our social support networks. Connecting with friends by telephone or video may not be quite the same as getting together in-person but still offers important connections that positively impact our emotional well-being.
There are also lots of virtual resources through which to connect with new people. The Institute on Aging has a “Friendship Line” (800-971-0016) for people age 60+ to call and have someone to talk to. The SAGE Connect program matches LGBT older adults with a volunteer for weekly phone or video check-ins (sageusa.org/sageconnect). The UK-based Senior Chatters (seniorchatters.co.uk) offers discussion boards, chat rooms, games, and more for people over 50 all over the world. Virtual book groups, remote volunteer opportunities, and online classes all offer additional ways of getting connected with new people who share similar interests.
There is also no shame in reaching out to mental health professionals to seek support during this challenging time. Therapists continue to see patients through telehealth appointments and over the phone. There are even mental health providers who see patients through mobile apps and web-based chats. The Mental Health Delegates Line (215-685-6440) is a good resource for Philadelphians seeking mental health referrals.
This winter will be challenging. We are navigating a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that has likely already affected our physical and mental health in many ways. There is a lot that we can do to stay healthy, support ourselves, maintain our social connections, and care for our bodies and minds.