AUSTIN (KXAN) — Social distancing and self-quarantining amid the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the impact that loneliness can have on people of all ages.

While the holiday season may provide comfort and solace to some who have struggled this year, for others it can be the toughest time of year – and the pandemic has made these feelings worse.

That’s according to Annette Juba, deputy director of AGE of Central Texas, who said loneliness is one of the most important things they focus on.

“People tend to feel a little more lonely during the holidays anyway, and certainly the pandemic and the physical distancing requirements just really exacerbate that,” she said.

Nearly half of Americans aged over 60 reported feeling socially isolated even before the coronavirus changed the way we live in early 2020.

And while technology has played a vital role this year – “it has been a lifesaver,” Juba said – nothing helps elderly people suffering from loneliness like spending time with others in person.

“They say that they just really miss being with friends and peers,” Juba said. “Technology is great, it’s certainly filled a lot of gaps, but it does not replace that direct experience.”

AGE of Central Texas recently made the decision to reopen its adult day centers to a small number of low-risk clients.

At the centers, seniors can exercise, play games and reminisce with one another – as long as they wear masks and comply with the center’s strict distancing guidelines.

“They were just so excited to see somebody in person and do things in a group setting with people,” Juba added. “It was a really joyous thing.”

It’s not just older people that have struggled with feeling isolated in 2020.

Studies have shown that loneliness is linked to depression and anxiety in children and teenagers, according to Karen Ranus, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Central Texas.

“This long period of time we’ve had in which we’ve been unable to be socially engaged the way we’re used to has impacted everyone,” she said.

“Especially during this time when our days are shorter so it gets darker earlier and during the holiday season when we are accustomed to more engagement. This is usually a time when there’s more parties, there’s more get togethers and instead we are having less of that,” she added.

As part of its community outreach, NAMI Central Texas hosts regular online support groups for adults. Demand is so high that the groups have been filling up, according to Ranus.

“I think we are seeing a younger crowd in those support groups and I think some of that is about that sense of feeling a little bit isolated and desperately needing that connection,” she said.

Ranus said that we live in a culture where we encourage people to “reach out” or “get help”, but that those can be the hardest things to do for someone feeling isolated or depressed.

Instead, people should try to be proactive and be the one to reach out if they notice a friend or family member being more withdrawn, she said.

In some cases, the impact of loneliness on an individual’s health can be comparable to smoking or obesity, according to Dr. Joanne Sotelo, director of the psychiatry division at Baylor Scott & White Health.

She previously told KXAN that feeling lonely can increase the chances of suffering from heart disease and dementia.

“One of the hypotheses is that it changes kind of the stress hormones that increase your blood pressure, getting to that inflammation cascade that makes us more at risk of getting ill,” Dr Sotelo said.

“But then also, when we’re by ourselves, we don’t take good as good care of ourselves, we don’t move as much,” she added. “So there are several components that contribute to those changes.”

There are various ways that people can connect with elder people who may be lonely this holiday season – whether they have loved ones or simply members of the community.

Juba said that people can call on the phone – with short, more frequent calls often better than longer calls – send Christmas cards, or safely visit someone on the front porch.

For more resources, see the AGE of Central Texas and NAMI Central Texas websites. Older people can also use the website A Mighty Good Time to find activities that can keep them busy.