Feelings of loneliness and social isolation have been around for a long time. Even under normal, non-Covid circumstances, surveys say that somewhere between 20% and 30% of us admit that we lack regular companionship and feel lonely on a regular basis.
This is a particular problem for older people. According to the U. S. Census, less than 10% of Americans in their 30s and 40s live alone. But 18% of 60-year-olds and 25% of 75-year-olds live all by themselves.
Now I know that living alone does not necessarily mean you're lonely -- and conversely, you can be lonely even if you live with a large family or in a group home -- but being forced into isolation during this time of Coronavirus can bring on loneliness even for those who are most socially engaged. It's especially true for people with hearing loss and mobility issues, and for people -- like me -- who don't always like their own company, who tend to brood about their regrets and past mistakes.
Loneliness is different from solitude. Solitude is a voluntary and enjoyable experience that can lead to creativity, spirituality and self-growth. Loneliness is more a state of mind, a feeling of being unwanted and unloved. It can be a chronic problem that leads to feelings of emptiness and pointlessness.
"Loneliness leads to poorer mental and physical health," according to the New York Times. Lonely people feel helpless and abandoned, separated from the community and discriminated against by other people. Loneliness is associated with higher stress levels, as well as depression and dementia. It can adversely affect the immune system and the cardiovascular system.
Fortunately, there are a number of "interventions" to improve our social well-being. It's a "treatable rather than an irreversible condition," as the literature says. Strategies to ward off loneliness include keeping busy, sharing feelings, involving yourself in activities, helping others, joining interest groups, staying in contact with family and friends.
Of course, a lot of these "interventions" are easier said than done, especially these days when we're prohibited from gathering in groups, and the opportunities for meeting new people are limited.
But here are a few practical ideas that we've found useful. Maybe you have some other ideas.
We've found that we've been able to Zoom or Facetime with our kids. During normal times, they are often too busy with work and their own kids to have much time for us. They only afford us a quick phone call, or the dreaded text. But now they are as bored as we are, and happy to spend 30 or 40 minutes sitting with their phone or computer and entertaining the folks.
We've also found it easier to keep in touch with old friends who, again, are looking for things to do to fill their hours. They're not rushing off to play pickleball or to try out a new restaurant, and so they're happy to spend time with us. We've also reignited some old friendships for the same reason.
Ditto with family. I'm talking with my sister in Phoenix every week now, when before it was more like once in a month or two. I've also been in touch with three long-lost cousins -- first by email, then by phone -- to catch up on their lives, find out what their children are doing, and laugh about some old escapades we stumbled into when we were kids.
We've also joined up with a few new groups in town. For example, we belong to our local independent movie theater. But we don't really know anyone there. When the theater management arranged a Zoom meeting for members, we ordinarily would not have attended. No one knows us. But now? What the heck. We've got nothing better to do. So we met a dozen fellow theater-goers -- and now when the theater does reopen we will have someone to talk to.
Our regular volunteer activities are curtailed. But again, we've paid attention to some emails that we would normally have ignored. And now we have an opportunity to help with some online ESL training.
One thing we have not tried is online chat, such as quarantinechat, which offers people the opportunity to find like-minded strangers -- kind of like a dating app, but just to give people a chance to talk with a friendly voice. But we may very well get to that before this is all over.
Finally, we live in town. People walk past our house all the time. Normally we ignore them. But B put a teddy bear in our window and a sign out front that says, "Wave to the teddy bear." Now people stop and smile, and sometimes, if we're out in the yard, we end up talking to them and sharing stories -- always keeping our six-foot distance. We've met several neighbors just standing out in our front yard, talking and joking about our current absurd situation.
Covid-19 is no fun, and neither is self-isolating and social distancing. But there is a silver lining. And maybe when things get back to normal, we'll have a few new friends, closer ties to our town . . . and fewer times when we're sitting at home feeling like no one likes us.