I had the pleasure of going to a BBQ with some of my cousins this week, with good food and conversation and familial warmth in the cool dusk. I jumped at the invite, knowing such gatherings will likely be few and far between as the days continue getting longer and warmer and the summer season starts. I am embarrassed to admit that ever since Biden’s speech introducing his relief package, where he predicted that things would get back to relative normal by July 4th I’ve thought, “Oh no! Not that!” Yes, it’s been a hellish year but do I really want things to go back to ‘normal’, to ‘fess up to how socially isolating normal is even in the best of times?
I’m hardly alone. Research shows that the number of people who perceive themselves to be lonely has doubled since 1980, and that those who consider themselves socially isolated has reached epidemic proportions. [Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact. Social isolation is a lack of social connections. Social isolation can lead to loneliness in some people, while others can feel lonely without being socially isolated.] This past year only exacerbated that crisis, with ⅔ of adults saying they experienced social isolation. Yet on the bright side, if there is one to be had, some mental health advocates believe COVID-19 will finally give loneliness and social isolation the mainstream recognition they deserve.
I’m hoping they’re right, and that when we all go back to “normal”, whatever that was, some of us will be changed by our experience. Am I being too idealistic or unrealistic to hope that those who had a particularly difficult 2020 emerge in Summer 2021 more sensitive, more aware of the challenges others face on a regular basis? That many of us will experience what is called “post-traumatic growth”, where we emerge stronger and with a greater sense of meaning as a result of hardship? Might the vulnerability so many of us experienced in our relative isolation soften our hearts so that we widen our social circles? Will more people reach out to their elderly neighbors or recently separated friend or the new immigrant family that moved in down the street or just someone who doesn’t seem to get out much?
I sure hope so. Just like the pandemic, social isolation is a public health crisis. Loneliness has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Those figures always boggle my mind, that for all the vegetarian food and exercise and meditation and the relatively healthy lifestyle I have, my lifespan is being shortened by circumstances I have less control over.
For me those circumstances include having a son with limited social skills which have diminished even further over the past year of being holed up alone; now going somewhere unfamiliar or meeting people he doesn’t know has become even more of a challenge. Finding reliable respite care is equally hard, which means it’s difficult for T & I to get out on our own.
I find this topic especially hard to write about. Who wants to admit to feeling lonely? Here too I’m not alone: Research shows that people would rather admit to being depressed than to being lonely; that there’s even more stigma to feeling socially isolated than there is to mental illness. The British, who have studied this so much they have appointed a Minister of Loneliness, have found that while anyone can feel isolated, it’s more likely to occur in certain groups: carers [what they call caregivers], the elderly, people with disabilities, refugees, the newly widowed or separated, members of the LGBTQA community. (Of course there are members of all these groups who don’t feel especially lonely.) Women over 50 who are carers were found to have especially high rates of isolation, so at least I’m in good company…
But the fact is none of us want to be here. Everyone wants to feel less alone and more connected. It’s part of the human condition. A period of disconnect can help us appreciate how much we long to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. I’m hoping that more people appreciate our shared humanity and that normal might look a little different this time.