Mathew lives alone in an old house on our street. We met for the first time the other evening when my wife and I were walking in the neighborhood. Mathew is 85 and a widower. “My wife died a few years back,” he told us with emotion in his voice. “I miss her.” He wanted to talk, and we wanted to listen. We asked if he needed help with grocery shopping or just to talk. We were trying to sustain the connection and make sure he was OK.
As we said goodbye a few minutes later, he reached out to shake our hands. When I didn’t take it, he tried my wife. He looked confused. It was like our cultural language had changed overnight, and he wasn’t told. We tried to explain about social distancing and COVID-19, and I ended with an awkward, hands-together bowing gesture — which I’m sure made no sense. As he shuffled away, I found myself a bit sad that we couldn’t explain ourselves better and thought of all those people like him trying to understand what is happening to the world they knew.
Isolation and loneliness can feel more acute in the absence of these small moments of human connection. That is made even harder when we don’t know an end date.
There are so many indignities and frustrations that occur on the natural path of aging, and right now they are only exacerbated. As the CEO of Jewish Family Service, I see that play out on a regular basis across the community. So many people are feeling lost and isolated — trying to redefine their purpose. While we may say, “I’m one of the lucky ones,” that doesn’t mean we can’t also feel more anxious, down or lonely. So much of our known world has reversed with breathtaking speed.
Last week, our team began going back into our most vulnerable clients’ homes for the first time in weeks. Before COVID-19, these visits were routine wellness checks. They occurred regularly and were an opportunity for our case managers to determine client needs: help with picking up medications, sending mail, food, or maybe just someone to talk to.
In this new world, our case managers have had to learn how to use face shields, gowns and personal protective equipment to provide direct support. Clients have been asked to wear masks and practice social distancing. Needless to say, the visits now look and feel extraordinarily different than before — more clinical and less human. But there are bright spots. A client with mental-health issues who previously refused to wear a mask in public agreed to wear one during a recent visit and has now started donning his whenever he leaves home.
In our own ways, we are all mourning and struggling to adapt as we make the shift to this startlingly new reality where a door handle is suspect, and a mask is a moral statement.
But one thing remains constant, even right now: Picking up the phone and calling an isolated friend, neighbor or even stranger can have a profound impact. It will always be appreciated, perhaps more than we can ever know. You don’t need special equipment to show someone you’re thinking of them — just your words.
As the world grapples with this pandemic, a separate public-health crisis is brewing: a mental-health epidemic. Let’s remember to check in with each other. We may need to socially distance, but we don’t need to emotionally distance. Even though we may feel alone, we are in this together. Indeed, that is the only way we will make it through this time.