Finding ways to keep yourself and your loved ones safe, while also maintaining close and supportive connections has never been more challenging or important. The struggle to avoid isolation is real and common, with more than a third of Americans reporting increased levels of loneliness since lockdowns began several months ago. These trends have serious health impacts as social isolation is associated with a host of health problems, such as increased risk of heart attack, dementia and depression. To help you and your loved ones stay healthy and connected we have compiled a list of creative ways to keep up with friends, family and community no matter what challenges are thrown your way. 

Make video chats better!

If you are like many people, Zoom or Facetime calls can leave you feeling even worse and less connected then before you logged in.Try the following approaches from communication experts to increase feelings of connection during your next video chat with someone your trust:

Share something vulnerable early in the call. This will shift the focus from small talk to deeper, more meaningful conversation.

Do your best to make sure airtime is shared, unless one party is having a particular crisis and needs extra attention. You can use a timer for this or just try and be more aware if one person is doing a lot more of the talking or listening.

Use active listening to facilitate connection. Active listening techniques include things like not interrupting, asking questions to clarify what has been said, listening without judgement or planning what you will say next, validating all types of feelings and offering encouragement.

Set the tone and parameters for the conversation you want to have. “I’m so happy to chat with you. I hope we can talk about how we are really feeling during these strange times. I have set aside the next 45 minutes for this especially.”

Get creative and silly. Why not wear costumes, do dance moves together or talk with a hand puppet? Adding laughter is the best way to improve any call. 

Let the snails tell your tale

During these isolating times personal correspondence is a warm, personal and tangible way to show you care. Many people have turned to writing letters and sending other handmade messages and gifts as a way to keep up with friends. Letter writing can also be a healthy form of self-expression, as well as a way to build compassion as you try to imagine the daily life another person is experiencing. If you are not sure who to write to, organizations have popped up to help connect letter writers with isolated seniors.

If you are not sure how to start a letter, making fun of your own handwriting or sharing that you are not sure where to start is always a safe bet. You can also exchange riddles, jokes, recipes or try writing in code to spice up your correspondence. Adding stickers, fun paper, glitter pens or other arts supplies can also make letter writing more fun for everyone involved.  For people who enjoy following the news and world events closely exchanging letters analyzing current situations can be a way to connect and promote mutual understanding. And after you send your letters you get to enjoy waiting for replies, a bonus benefit since anticipation is another proven mood booster. 

Honor the past while connecting in the present

Many of us have loads of photos in boxes, on hard drives or stored on the cloud that we have long intended to turn into scrap or memory books to commemorate life milestones. What better way to connect with the friend you took a trip with a few years ago then reviewing all those photos—reliving the fun you had—while creating a keepsake you can both have forever? Looking at photos of loved ones and good times helps us recall the fun we had and may inspire planning for future trips too. Focusing on these positive memories—while taking a little break from the limitations of the present— can stimulate the production of the feel good hormone dopamine. And for more adventure minded folks who may have scaled peaks or completed international treks, remembering those accomplishments can boost self-esteem and feelings of empowerment.

Do challenges together (even though you are apart)

One of the most creative ways to connect is to develop unique challenges you and your loved ones can do together. Examples include sending each other new songs everyday, doing the same online workouts each week, binge watching the same show over a weekend or reading the same book. These shared experiences can help bring you  together, inspire some good natured “trash talking” and accountability and give you something positive to focus on. 

If you are stumped on what challenge to do with a loved one, make a list of what you have in common and things you have both been wanting to try or explore. Are you both bummed about a canceled trip to South America? Maybe commit to doing the same online spanish app? Have you both gained a few quarantine pounds and want to slim down? What about a good natured weight-loss challenge? Do you both talk about reading more? What about a two person book club? A daily or weekly challenge can help give your motivation, structure and a great way to connect with those you love. 

There is no doubt that building and maintaining relationships is more difficult right now with many COVID-19 restrictions still in place. The times call for creative solutions, innovative approaches and some extra effort to let the ones we love know that we care and are thinking about them. What are some creative things you have done to stay connected? What new ideas would you like to try to keep up with friends and family?