November 23rd 2020
“Real religion...is this. Look after orphans and widows in their distress...” – James 1:27
“At this stage I think I’d rather die from COVID-19 than loneliness,” shared the 88-year-old voice on the other end of the phone. “I’ve not seen my family in 7 months. I’m just so...so tired of being alone.” I was uncertain how to respond.
The past few weeks I’ve been returning voicemails left on my mother’s answering machine. News got out that she’s recovering in the hospital from a recent fall, and her friends are checking for updates on her recovery. It’s heartwarming to experience the concern of companions who span decades.
As someone spending 90% of his life thinking about issues impacting children and teens, I’ve found myself unexpectedly thrust into the world of octogenarians—female octogenarians more specifically. Allow me to make an observation—completely anecdotal—based on my recent conversations with Louise, Vernie, Pat, Nancy, Sheila, Marg, and Dorris. All widows. All living alone. All in their 80’s and 90’s.
Besides the fact that this pandemic is disproportionately impacting the health of our elderly citizens, there is an additional casualty: loneliness and social isolation. It’s a problem. It’s growing. Especially as we move into this holiday season.
My octogenarian sensitization is pushing me to see beyond my normal social sphere of younger colleagues, active 50-something-year-old peers and the friends of my young adult children. It’s opened my eyes to the painstakingly long, empty days our seniors experience who live alone...shut off from social contact with family or friends. Regular routines of socialization disrupted: church online, assisted-living dining rooms closed, bingo nights cancelled, book clubs on hold and the local Curves studios shuttered for mid-morning Pilates. “We’re just lonely.” That’s the cry bubbling to the surface.
A few years ago a friend shared a heartening story of his mother. She kept a list of names and numbers by her phone. Her husband of 60 years recently passed, so she’d often find herself a little melancholy at certain times of the day. “When I’m feeling a little blue,” she confessed, “I pick up the phone, call someone who is worse off than me and try to encourage them. It makes me feel a little better.” Her story surfaced in my memory this week.
“Fundamentally we are social creatures and part of what brings meaning to our lives is to maintain and foster those social connections,” Lisbeth Nielsen, from the Institute of Aging, reminds us. “Loneliness is the sense of suffering from being disconnected from other people.”
This holiday season approaches after many difficult and isolating months, with every indication that things are getting worse before they get better. Perhaps a special opportunity presents itself for those of us who own a phone.
What if each of us makes a list of people we know who live alone—individuals whose social connections have been disrupted, who are immune compromised, or in an assisted living facility on lockdown? Once we’ve compiled our list, let’s make a few phone calls and say hello, ask a few questions, express a word of gratitude or even say a prayer. Our listening ear and audible voice will be a welcomed gift.
The apostle Paul, when writing to the church of Galatia, says: “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the Law of Christ.”
At this moment in history, loneliness certainly qualifies as a burden. Those of us blessed with the love of family and friends can carry a little burden for those whose wavering hearts pine for days of crowded kitchens and laughter around the supper table. A short phone call can fulfill the Law of Christ—and put a little Thanksgiving joy in someone’s heart.