Caregivers are one of the most socially isolated groups in the United States. According to studies by AARP, NIH, and The Family Caregiver Alliance, 40%-70% of caregivers report depression and loneliness. Because our free time is such a precious commodity, it’s understandable that our so-called social life has probably been on the backburner for years. How could we possibly invest ourselves in other relationships when we are so consumed in caring for someone who dearly needs us?
The truth is: loneliness is downright painful — and worse, most of us are ashamed of it. The social stigma surrounding loneliness forces us to hide it rather than admit it to anyone. When we feel this vulnerable, meeting up with friends (even by phone) is not such a simple task. Perhaps we’re not too skilled at chitchat and pleasantries. Or maybe we aren’t quite ready to brave a real conversation and dish out what’s left of our energy and focus. Or, maybe the lure of Netflix on the screen, our cat in our lap, and a glass of chardonnay is stronger than our desire to connect with others. In this way, isolation becomes a way to cope with our fatigue (and compassion fatigue), which in turn, may lead us to blame ourselves for pulling away from others. Unfortunately, this self-blame can isolate us even further, and before we know it, our social confidence is gone, and we are locked in a prison of isolation.
But we don’t have to stay isolated. First and foremost, to break out of the grip of isolation, finding just one person to talk to is crucial. To be frank, it’s not humanly possible to break out of our loneliness all alone. We need a lifeline to a caring, empathic, and patient person—a comforting friend, mentor, relative (even your long-lost aunt 1000 miles away), therapist, or chaplain. Fortunately, during these times of COVID-19, we can turn to a therapist through teletherapy or reach out to a friend on our phones or videoconferencing. But if we are completely alone without anyone to call for support, we can call 211 or go to www.211.org, or to www.samsha.gov for their disaster relief support (phone 1-800-985-5990). Those of us over fifty five can call our local senior center and ask for support (we can find our local senior centers by using the Eldercare Locator (800-677-1116 or https://eldercare.acl.gov)). Senior centers are closed physically, but their lines are often open and staff can help.
Before venturing to build new connections and community (even on Zoom, Skype or FaceTime), it helps to reflect on what nurtures us at our core. What are the values and interests that beckon us to reach out and join with others? Rather than simply hunting to find new friends or our “tribe,” we can create opportunities to build relationships by following least one of these five callings (motivations):
- What we care about, such as helping and serving others. Perhaps we can call fellow caregivers to check in with them. They would likely appreciate our call and have a chance to exchange tips or resources—and most of all, our good listening and empathy. Or maybe we volunteer remotely with a community group such as a food pantry where we can drop off supplies. Check in with Volunteer Match at www.volunteermatch.org or www.unitedway.org or www.211.org to spot an opportunity to join with a group that is stepping up during the COVID-19 crisis.
- What piques our curiosity, including ideas and hobbies we have not yet explored. Take an online class, join a study group, learn a language, or craft with a group over a Facebook chat. Learning nurtures us and pulls us out of our shells, allowing us to see our lives in new perspectives. Best of all, it’s a sure bet for getting people together to discuss something besides the COVID-19 pandemic or our daily worries.
- What interests we enjoy or are passionate about and sharing those interests with others. Perhaps we join a book club or a group that shares photos or find other ways to share our favorite Spotify playlist, poems, or “guilty pleasures” Netflix list with others. Ideally, we can customize our lists for our friends and loved ones based on their particular passions. “I found the perfect song for you!” “Here’s a great documentary about castles.”
- What we are healing from, including difficult situations, chronic illnesses we are coping with, addictions, and other challenges. We can join an online support group where others are grappling with the same circumstances we are (such as a caregiver’s support group or 12-step recovery group). Or perhaps we join a spiritual or faith-based community to nurture a deep sense of peace and belonging. Finding emotional support with a psychotherapist might be helpful in these challenging times of COVID-19. Many psychotherapists are offering their services through teleconferencing (check the Psychology Today website, www.psychologytoday.com, or check on www.samhsa.gov, for a list of local therapists). Having at least one person to talk to about our feelings and worries is vital, even if we reach out to a comforting long-lost friend, classmate, or cousin from years ago.
- What gives us purpose, such as sharing a cause or a mission with others. Perhaps we join a group dedicated to advocacy for wildlife protection or an organization that advocates for people with disabilities. We could share our stories or essays on a blog or website and build community through the exchange of our common experiences.
In short, when we pursue what is authentically meaningful to ourselves, then we are more likely to find meaningful engagement with a group that is dedicated to the same interest or cause. When we are intentional and honest about what groups and relationships we choose, we are more apt to find solidarity and meaningful connections.
We can build community and become closer with each other even in these times of social distancing. Indeed, we create community by starting sincere conversations and offering our listening and interest. Even with a phone call or a hand-written letter, we can hold space for each other to be heard, validated and appreciated. We can be lifelines—let’s not shy away.
Val Walker is a rehabilitation consultant and contributing blogger for Psychology Today. She received her MS in rehabilitation counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University and is the author of 400 FRIENDS AND NO ONE TO CALL: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community (a Central Recovery Press paperback).