A few days ago, as I was working at my part-time job at a local hardware store, I noticed one customer had dropped her keys fumbling with her things. At first, I hesitated, and then went to help her. But as I bent down to pick up the fallen keys, she sharpened her focus to mine: “No, that is fine, I will get them.” The hesitation was my initial cue; and with her response, I was rocked back into our pandemic-stricken world where touch is the new taboo, and our feeling of safety is judged and assessed by the space that separates us. While this is necessary in order to mitigate the number of new COVID cases surging worldwide, the loss of social touch and connection can have damaging effects on people’s mental health and wellbeing, particularly for the elderly, adolescents, and those living alone or far away from family.
Thinking about this scene reminded me of a very different day back in late February, before anyone knew for sure what was going to happen with the virus. I was living in Spain for a study abroad and had decided to take a solo weekend trip to Ronda, a tiny village set atop a mountain in Spain’s south. There were no trains or buses available to go, so I opted for a ride-share. As I arrived at the pick-up point, my driver came out to greet me with a hug and double-cheek kiss, and while I was familiar with this greeting (owing to my European background), it nonetheless caught me unawares. Spain was, at that time, already dealing with a coronavirus outbreak in the country’s north, but here in the south, it was as if nothing had changed. And although I was surprised, I wasn’t fearful. Rather, the simple act of him coming to greet me with a friendly gesture helped to soften my experience and make me feel more at ease in the situation. Touch and social connection are some of the most powerful tools we have to make each other feel safe, acknowledged, loved and cared for. What happens when those tools are no longer available?
In her article The Need for Touch, Laura Crucianelli looks at the science behind this basic human need. The feeling of being touch triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, a natural chemical our bodies produce that helps us to relax and feel at home and at peace in our surroundings. Touch also allows us to communicate feelings that we may find hard or insufficient to express in words, such as our love, fear, pain, worry, or even happiness and joy. “Touch is so vital,” says Cricianelli, “that even the language of digital communication is saturated with touch metaphors. We ‘keep in touch’ and acknowledge that we are ‘touched by your kind gesture’.” But digital connection, in addition to being time-consuming and unreliable (depending on the strength of your network), cannot fill the desire we have to feel and be felt by another human being.
We’re human, therefore we suffer. But the suffering that arises from the loss of physical connection during COVID can be particularly acute among the elderly and those who live alone. In June 2019, On Being – a podcast project led by Krista Tippett – released an episode of a conversation between Krista and Jerry Colonna, a venture capitalist-turned business coach. One of the things that most stood out for me was when Colonna highlighted the fact that almost all of our actions stem from a desire to satisfy three basic needs: survival, belonging, and love. The feeling of loneliness threatens these three basic needs by making us feel we are unloved, alone, and afraid. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness was already labelled a “behavioural epidemic” in the U.S, Europe and China. Loneliness has also been recognized by the World Health Organization as a major global health concern, and in 2019 the world’s first Minister of Loneliness was appointed in the UK. Loneliness and social distancing are, for all intents and purposes, distinct events, however there is plenty of overlap between the two. Loneliness is not a factual statement about us, although the state of being lonely dwells in us as a fact of ourselves, making it harder to step outside of it. This is why we can be lonely even in a city of seven million people, for loneliness is not created by any external factors, but rather is a symptom of our past and the stories we carry that colour our perspective. “I’m alone” or “I don’t belong” are some very common human stories we carry with us that shape how we interact with the world outside our own. Depriving oneself of social connection can be a way of feeling safe and in control, but it hides a deeper sense of our own insecurity at not feeling like we belong or deserve love. The longer we live with our loneliness, the more real the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves become.
The elderly population is already at a much higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 than of any other demographic. Because of this, many have had to limit contact with parents and grandparents and avoid visits to retirement, nursing homes, and hospitals. Far too many of our elderly have died, alone, in hospital rooms over the last eight months, without a hand to hold them as they took their last breath. Many elderlies may have lost spouses to the virus and are now facing the reality of living alone and away from family. Even for those who already lived alone prior to the pandemic, strict social distancing measures in place have cut off a huge chunk of their social lives, by denying them access to clubs, community centres, sport and volunteer activities, etc. The effect this can have on our seniors is a major concern. In addition to increasing symptoms of depression, loneliness and social isolation can disrupt the body’s natural sleep cycle, vision, and motor skills, and negatively influence how one judges the quality of their life. Loneliness and depression are also associated with worsening cognition over time and may play a big role in incident dementia.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also illuminated many of the ways we fall short in caring for our aging population. The horrors we witnessed take place at long-term care homes during the start of the pandemic are now returning, owing to staff shortages, poor conditions and rapid community spread. Executive Director of the Ontario Health Coalition, Natalie Mehra, predicts that this wave will play out much worse than the first, with the number of infections and deaths set to increase owing to burdensome staff counts. The spread of infection also forces stricter social distancing measures on residents, and this alone can be a cause for worry: data reports from the 2003 SARS pandemic in Hong Kong show a 30% increase in suicide in people 65 and over, with women being more at risk. According to examinations done after these deaths, the main factors that contributed to these suicides were the fear of getting sick, the loss of social support, and loneliness.
While waiting anxiously for the approval of a vaccine, those of us with the money, time and resources to care for the elderly must do so. We can begin by initiating conversations with older relatives, parents and grandparents in which we call out the presence of loneliness brought on by the pandemic (or earlier). By labelling our emotions, we not only diffuse their power and hold on us but also create a space where those engaged in the conversation feel okay to talk about what they’re feeling. This may also present the opportunity for older people to leverage their own strengths; for instance, a teenager may be more receptive to talking about her fears and loneliness with her grandmother, living 100 kilometres away, than with her own parents. Other ways to help include introducing our older family members to new kinds of platforms where they can engage in a wide range of meaningful activities, such as listening to music through an app, streaming their favourite movies, or reaching out to family via video telecommunications networks. These tools can be powerful ways of mediating our need for touch and social belonging by producing the same visceral feeling of being loved and held in the presence of something other than ourselves.
I also recommend supportive check-ins for individuals who have lost their loved ones over the pandemic and now must face the challenges of learning to live alone while being shut off from family. Consistent with that statement is the urgent need for governments and health facilities to address the issue of understaffing in senior residences and long-term care homes and create an action plan, implemented immediately, to bridge the spaces left by chance.
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