In this strange time of the Coronavirus pandemic, the streets are relatively empty and the world seems eerily quiet. We are practicing “home isolation” and “social distancing.” Those phrases sound dire and lonely and, frankly, wrong. I wish the powers that be had used the term physical distancing rather than social distancing. Perhaps we could say home-based rather than home isolated.
We need our social connections now more than ever. We need them for our mental health and our physical health. There is a wealth of research documenting that our social connections promote health and longevity in a multitude of ways. Studies dating back to the 1980s demonstrate that social isolation is more detrimental to our physical health than physical risk factors such as obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., an expert in health psychology states that social connection, on the other hand,
…strengthens our immune system (research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life.
Social connection has also proven vital to help those battling addictions. Meeting with others in groups like AA, NA, and OA provides the opportunity for group members to share their experiences, feel understood, validated, and loved. Strong connections are formed in these groups as well as the one-on-one connection with a sponsor who will be there anytime that support is needed.
Without our social connections and in isolation…fear, depression, and anxiety can run amok. Calls to suicide hotlines have increased exponentially since the self-quarantine measures were instituted. According to officials at several large hotlines across the country, callers report feeling depressed, anxious, and fearful, rather than acutely suicidal (The Sacramento Bee). However, there has also been an increased incidence of suicide attempts and suicidal ideation (BuzzFeedNews).*
It’s true that we must maintain physical distance from others in order to minimize the spread of the coronavirus and protect those most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. We must remain home-based as much as possible. However, let’s not isolate or “socially” distance ourselves.
We may not be able to touch right now, but we can still and always love.
There are so many ways to maintain and create social connections, even in this time of the Coronavirus pandemic. Novel challenges like those we are facing with this pandemic seem to spark our creativity. Thankfully, we have the normal methods for maintaining and even boosting social connection through technology. But we have also seen some wonderfully creative ways of connecting over the past couple of weeks.
Even the normal methods of connecting through technology have become lifelines for those individuals, groups, and organizations that did not rely on them before this quarantine. We are now doing almost everything virtually and many have learned ‘on the fly’ how to do so.
The support groups mentioned above are conducting meetings virtually and attracting participants from all over. A few are holding face to face meetings of fewer than 10 participants while observing the rules of social…or, shall we say…physical distancing for those who really need extra support.
Teachers are meeting with their students from transitional kindergarten (Friday “show and tell” via Zoom) through graduate school online. Speech therapists are having Zoom sessions with their clients (much to the relief and gratitude of their parents). Business meetings have shifted almost entirely from the conference room to online forums. Churches are live-streaming on Youtube and having interactive services via Zoom and Facebook. Many doctors and other health professionals are doing initial screenings online. Zumba and yoga teachers are live-streaming classes. Artists are posting free art lessons for kids online. Even astronauts are reading books to kids from the Space Station and teaching them about gravity at the same time!
Your Kids Can Now Watch Astronauts Reading Stories From Space
If you need to mix up your bedtime story routine a little bit, the Global Space Education Foundation has just the thing…
Creativity abounds in individual pursuits of social connection as well. Friends are getting together virtually to play Monopoly via Zoom…each with a Monopoly board in their own home. Others have started virtual book clubs like the one my four sisters and I just set up. Some friends make the same dinner and then get together virtually to “share” their meal and conversation.
People are finding creative ways to reach out to one another and help those with children home from school. A neighbor of two families with young children created a game of ‘hide and seek’ for them with colorfully painted rocks hidden in each in their front yards for them to find. (She messaged the parents ahead of time to give them a head’s up and let them know that all materials had been disinfected and handled with gloves.) Others have posted games of ‘spot the shamrocks,’ hearts, bears, etc. on social media platforms like Facebook and Nextdoor, encouraging others to place the item of choice in their windows or on their doors for families to spot while walking or driving the neighborhood.
One of my favorite examples of social connection has been the way others have helped to celebrate children’s birthdays. Parents who had birthday parties planned for children have posted on Facebook asking for help in celebrating and received dozens of birthday greetings in the form of comments and videos in return. One family that lived close to a birthday girl snuck over the night before under the cover of darkness and placed a sign in the front yard for her to discover on her birthday. Another birthday boy was surprised by over 40 friends and neighbors driving by…honking and displaying signs on their cars wishing him a happy birthday or with gifts they placed on his doorstep.
Networks for those who are more vulnerable and/or isolated have been set up by neighbors, community groups, churches, and other organizations. I’ve seen multiple notices on Nextdoor (an online app that promotes neighborhood community) from individuals offering to run errands for the elderly and deliver whatever they’ve picked up to their doorstep. Churches have become clearinghouses connecting those who need help with church members who are ready to help. I’ve also seen printable signs offering help that you can fill out with your name, address, and phone number and hang on neighbors’ doors.
More people are getting outside and walking their neighborhoods, waving as they pass others at a safe distance. A few creative individuals are getting their neighbors out in their respective backyards and directing them in Zumba with music and a bull horn from their balconies. People all over the world are singing and playing instruments on their balconies while their neighbors across the way listen and applaud.
All of these efforts help to provide a sense of social connection that is so needed right now. But there is one group that is particularly vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. While the elderly may be receiving much-needed help in procuring groceries and medications from volunteers, most of them can no longer safely walk outdoors. Nor do most have iPhones or laptops which are the vehicles for maintaining the majority of our social connections right now. How can we make them feel a little less isolated and lonely?
It seems we have to do that the old-fashioned way. My sisters and I have come up with a schedule to call our 94-year-old aunt on a weekly basis. Some of our kids and grandkids are also jumping on board and calling or sending her notes in the mail. My 92-year-old neighbor, Mary, is on my mind a lot, too. So I call her a couple of times a week and visit with her at her front door from six feet away. I try to take her a little something each time I visit…books, soup, or flowers from my garden. This social connection lifts my spirits as well as Mary’s. It helps me to feel a little less alone myself. It reminds me that we need each other, especially at times like these.
So, let’s be safe and practice physical distancing, but let’s not socially isolate. We may not be able to touch, but we can still and always love. We can all use a little extra right now.
*Please note the information below if you are in need of support right now.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
24/7 free, confidential phone line that connects individuals in crisis with trained counselors across the United States. People do not have to be suicidal to call — reasons to call include: substance abuse, economic worries, relationships, sexual identity, illness, getting over abuse, depression mental and physical illness, and loneliness.