Loneliness During COVID-19
By Thain Simon
Most will remember March 2020 as the month America shut down to flatten the curve. But it means something different to me. The week before social distancing began, my father was diagnosed with cancer. As someone living on my own, I experienced the sadness, frustration and despair of a parent’s illness acutely, and alone. This experience of isolation—novel and temporary for me, but familiar and permanent for so many—moved me towards a deeper understanding of loneliness as both a personal and public health issue.
My father began chemotherapy in California on the day I attended my first virtual law school class in Durham, after Duke University closed its campus.I had wanted to go home, but the country was shutting down, flights were being cancelled, and the risk of exposure inherent in travel made such a trip—to visit a soon-to-be immunocompromised parent no less—out of the question. In the weeks that followed, my routine involved hours of Zoom lectures and daily phone calls home. As often happens with chemotherapy, my father’s treatment grew more difficult with each additional round.I began listening for—and finding—signs of fatigue in my parents’ voices. I internalized their weariness as if by doing so I could carry some of their burden.
In time, I grew tired of my routine and my apartment. It took more and more effort to stay focused on my classwork, which no longer felt important. I was turning inward, preoccupied with the uncertainty ahead, shaken, frustrated and sad. Under normal circumstances, I would have leaned on my friends for support. We’d have met for coffee, cooked meals together, shared dinner and drinks at our favorite restaurants and bars. But social distancing made the physical presence of friends impossible and I was left to process, grieve, and find the strength I needed on my own. Before I knew it, a month had passed without any experience of human presence deeper than a passing wave with my neighbors.
On Easter Sunday, more than a month into lockdown, a friend and fellow Margolis Scholar reached out to see if I wanted to go for a socially-distanced walk in Duke Forest. I had been politely declining invitations like this for weeks in an abundance of caution. But this time, for whatever reason, I relented. Fresh air and friendly company would do me some good. We walked and chatted for two hours, keeping our distance as best we could, but trusting also in the sun and the breeze and the openness of an outdoor space.
After the walk—my first meaningful in-person human interaction in a month—I felt lighter and happier. My emotional equilibrium had been reset and renewed. If I needed any more proof that I had been deeply lonely, this was it.I’m an introvert, and I usually enjoy living alone.But choosing to be alone during certain parts of the day—solitude—is different from loneliness. The former can be energizing; the latter can be debilitating.
There is nothing unique about my situation. The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone. Nearly two million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year. And loneliness is a common experience: a 2019 survey found that 60% of American adults report feeling lonely. My own experience of loneliness has been mild and temporary. But there’s growing recognition that social isolation is itself a serious public health issue.Research suggests that loneliness can be as harmful to health as obesity and may increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia.
Loneliness sharpens the bite of life’s hardships.It makes responding to inevitable experiences of suffering—like a parent’s cancer diagnosis—more difficult.The people I might have leaned on for support after my father’s diagnosis were all still there for me. But we couldn’t get together, we couldn’t meet for coffee or a meal, and we couldn’t hug. These things matter.
When we spend less time with other people, our focus shifts to ourselves—our world can’t help but shrink. This shift heightens the awareness of our own problems just as it erodes our connection to the concerns of others. Even as the world battled a deadly contagion, I was concerned mostly with my own father’s health. And as time went by, my attention shifted even further inwards to my own well-being and small hardships: the shortcomings of zoom lectures, the tedium of law school exams—my own petty frustrations. Time spent with others, especially in person, invites us out of ourselves. We reconnect with the world, gain perspective on our own lives, and cultivate gratitude for what we already have—all of which makes us happier. Through human connection we press pause on self-concern and grow towards the empathy needed to do meaningful work, especially in healthcare.
We knew this before the pandemic, but we are feeling it now, and differently. Loneliness doesn’t affect everyone equally. The elderly, for example, are distinctly at risk of experiencing loneliness—just as they are at greater risk of negative outcomes from COVID-19. During this pandemic, however, social distancing has introduced scores of people like myself, otherwise fortunate to enjoy strong social support, to the loneliness of isolation. It should awaken us to the real suffering of the socially isolated and compel us to action.
Fighting loneliness requires nothing but our time and intention. Checking in on people really helps.Those who are experiencing loneliness may not reach out themselves, so be proactive. As I experienced it, a short walk with a friend can make a world of difference. And when it comes to human connection, not all interaction is created equal. In person visits are the best (when we can). After that, video calls beat phone calls, which are better than texts.
Loneliness existed before COVID-19 and it will exist after. It is emerging as a public health concern of the first order. But this is a problem we can all tackle, today, without money or training. Who in your life might be lonely? Have ten minutes to say hello?