We are living in distressing times. It is getting harder and harder to deny the accumulation of real and perceived threats that demand that we take some action. The nightly news is filled with hyperbole and facts related to catastrophic changes in the political and environmental landscape. The local news follows the “If-it-bleeds,-it-leads” mentality, broken only by incongruous weather and sports stories. Tweets, Instagrams, and FaceBook postings snowball memes and threads that both trigger and amplify our inner “fight, flight, or freeze” response.
Where do we turn? How can we manage the increased levels of adrenaline coursing through our bodies? Historically we have looked to religious leaders and cultural institutions to address the moral and civic issues that impact our lives. How different this all feels in 2019!
One theme that shows up in my practice and my private life is the disconnection many of us are feeling. I realize that there are several factors that contribute to this. Geographically, I have no family close by. While I have lived in California for over half of my life, my roots go back to the Midwest. This is where most of my cousins still live. The older relatives have died, so the annual visits back there have stopped. Where we used to come together during the summer months and for holidays and celebrations, these occasions now accommodate the younger generation and I rarely attend any family gathering.
I have no children or grandchildren who need my help or advice or who are available to support and assist me with tasks, chores, or transportation needs. My husband’s children are all grown and have grandchildren of their own. Their lives are contained within their very tight circle and rightly focused on the newest additions to the family tree.
I am a widow which makes socializing challenging, since most folks I know are coupled. I go to movies with friends and dine out, but miss the comfort and contentment of coming home to a partner.
I still work, which limits my availability for socializing, traveling, and volunteering. It also consumes my attention and requires focus to keep the multiple plates spinning since I am a sole practitioner and don’t have staff. While these are my challenges, many of my clients as well as colleagues and friends can add to this list their physical challenges, aches and pains, transportation issues, and financial limitations. It is easy to understand why so many older Americans feel isolated or cut off.
It should not come as a surprise that the consequences of this kind of disconnection often lead to feeling keyed up or tense, feeling unusually restless, having difficulty concentrating because of worry, living with a fear that something awful may happen, experiencing feelings of loss of control, changes in appetite, changes in sleeping patterns (more or less), experiencing anxiety, being indecisive, and feeling unworthy, guilty, or hopelessness. This list reflects symptoms of what is called “anxious distress” and “depression”. At some level, all these symptoms taken together or in combination can be readily identified in myself or others.
I am constantly amazed at how, in spite of the intensity and frequency of these symptoms, so many of us just keep on getting up in the morning and living our lives. Perhaps even more frightening is that we are coming to believe that this is just how life is.
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability in the world. Read that sentence again, please. In – – – the – – – world. I want to let you know that it doesn’t have to be this way! Depression is an illness that has a beginning and middle and an end. It can be successfully treated with therapy and, if necessary, medication. We can live our lives with less anxious distress.
Beyond the clinical approach, and perhaps within reach of us all, there is an essential intervention that can be applied. It is based on a bio-psycho-physiologic truth.
We need each other.
The antidote to isolation and loneliness is connection. It is effective only when we reach out to others. It can be accomplished in many ways. It can be done using social media, but it is ever so much more satisfying if it is done in person.
One of the most influential things my mother did in raising me was to take me with her after church on Sunday when she went to visit members of our church who were home bound. This was always a special time for me. We would bring flowers left over from decorations in the sanctuary or some small token of hope, arrive at the person’s home and sit with them and just talk. I am not sure how long these visits were exactly, but they mustn’t have lasted very long, since I don’t remember being restless or wanting to hurry up and leave. I do remember the smiles and expressions of gratitude for this simplest of gestures, that for many represented the only human contact they had all week.
We lose the habit of reaching out to others when experiences of community-building are limited or change. Where once I was a part of several communities (work, school, church, and social), now I find myself resistant to joining in and protective of my time alone. I often succumb to feeling tired and depleted after a day of work. It is easier for me to click “Like” on a FaceBook post than to actually pick up the phone and call someone.
Still, I am one of the lucky ones. I can drive at night, I have some disposable income, and I live in an area that is safe and offers a variety of events that restore me. While it takes more effort for me to participate in activities, even enjoyable ones, all that is required is my reaching out. I recognize this and have made a commitment to say “Yes” to opportunities so that I can re-connect, so that I can affirmatively support my own well-being through giving and receiving.
I encourage you to look for opportunities to connect or re-connect. There are widening gaps in our social webs. We need to strengthen these, as the days ahead appear to contain challenges we have not faced in several generations. It may need to start with one, but it can grow exponentially when we are connected. Check out this inspirational video that proves my point.