At the beginning of January my husband and I decided to go to Australia, the land of our birth, to visit my mother-in-law, whom we have not seen in a year. This pandemic has taken its toll in human life and the physical well-being of millions of people around the world. But it has also taken its toll on the mental and emotional well-being of millions.
My mother-in-law lives alone. She is very sharp and independent but the toll of the loneliness and the tyranny of distance was affecting her mental well-being and her body has responded in kind.
With great trepidation, we decided to embark on this long journey to Melbourne.
The trip was rather eerie. Empty terminals, ghost halls, shuttered shops and masked and gloved personnel and travelers.
Before we left there was a lot of paperwork – lots and lots. Health forms, permits, declarations, corona tests. Canceled trips, rebooked trips. More canceled trips – but by March we were finally on our way.
Tel Aviv-Newark-Los Angeles-Sydney 50 hours!!!
We finally land in Sydney. We are escorted by soldiers from the plane through the terminal and onto waiting buses. Where are we going? To a quarantine hotel where we will spend the next 14 days. We are told that today is day 0. I didn’t know there was such a thing as day 0 but that gives us one more day in quarantine. Jokes abound on the bus. A kind of camaraderie between returning passengers who don’t know their quarantine destination. Because the personnel won’t say. A soldier gets on the bus. “Are Pauline and Allen Smith here? Looks like we might have a runner,” someone quips.
Before we disembark from the bus a police officer gets on and gives us instructions for our stay. A stay we have to pay for ourselves. No leaving the room. No key because we won’t need one. A guard on each floor on duty 24/7. Meals delivered three times a day. A knock on the door to say the food has arrived. “But”, we are told, “do not open the door for at least 20 seconds.” Enough time for the deliverer to escape being potentially infected by corona.
The whole experience is surreal. Who would have thought that in 2021 we would be traveling this way? We are lucky and are given a very comfortable suite. But it’s all the luck of the draw. You can’t choose. No balcony or opening window.
Aussies are a very disciplined bunch, it seems. No screaming and rioting. Just following the rules. Accepting that this is in place for the “safety of fellow Australians.” Hard borders, strict curfews, harsh penalties for rule breakers. But then Australia, with 25 million people, has a death toll from corona of 909. So maybe, what feels like draconian rule, is worth it in the long term.
We have traveled halfway around the world to be able to give some love and contact to our mother/mother-in-law. It is one of the difficulties of aliyah. Not everyone has the luxury to be able to go.
Yet all of this seems worth it for us. We have been vaccinated so my mother-in-law will see her son. She will get hugged by him and myself and have face to face contact with us after more than a year. We will sit in her living room and chat and sit at the dining table and share meals.
ISOLATION CAN be so lonely. The Economist (February 20, 2021) talks about the toll this pandemic has taken on people through lack of human touch. Humans crave human contact – both emotional and physical – and while we are trying to protect the most vulnerable, we are, in essence depriving them of basic human needs: the need for physical touch and social contact. This social isolation, not just for the elderly, is one of the biggest tolls of the pandemic. It is not quantifiable like morbidity or mortality so it is underestimated. It is the third, unseen tragedy of the pandemic. According to experts in The Lancet, (2020) this loneliness causes a heightened risk of cardiovascular, autoimmune, neurocognitive, and mental health problems, such as depression.
Studies show that people who have social support live longer, healthier lives. It is a surer predictor of longevity and health than diet, exercise or even smoking.
Social isolation and loneliness in the elderly is not new. It affected many older adults before the pandemic. Corona has made it worse. But with the successful vaccination program here in Israel, social contact is more and more available to us all. We have to make sure we don’t use corona as an excuse for perpetuating this crisis among the elderly.
There are many people of all ages who have adjusted and found ways to compensate for the loss of social contact this past year. But we have a responsibility as a society to help the more socially vulnerable groups. To quote Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, “a test of a people is how it behaves towards the old…”
SO, WHAT steps can you take to protect yourself from the negative impact of isolation? For starters get back into a routine. Get dressed in the morning. Put your best face on. Don’t do it for someone you are going to meet. Do it for yourself. The routine you were used to may have changed. Create a new routine. Don’t wait for someone to call you. Pick up the phone. Initiate the contact. If your daughter or grandchild hasn’t called for a while, make the call yourself.
Nothing will happen to you except that you will feel good to speak to them. It is very important to get back into the swing of living outside of yourself.
Call neighbors and friends. Get out when you can even if it is just for a walk. You’ll be surprised who you may meet on the way. Enroll in a course or lecture series. Volunteer. Get a pet. It is healthy to have another living creature of whom to take care. Go back to your local club if it has reopened. Do it online if necessary. Zoom is not the same as face to face but it sure beats being alone all day. My father has been going to a lecture three times a week, right through the pandemic. He doesn’t even have to put his shoes on but he is staying connected, seeing people on Zoom and keeping his mind active. Exercise with a friend. It’s more fun than doing it alone. Beware of corona becoming the pretext for not initiating social activities by you or by your family.
And the rest of us? We must be careful not to let the pandemic be our excuse for not visiting or calling.
Contact your grandmother or mother often, even if just to say I love you. Listen to the hard time she is having. Call your saba or zayde to tell him about your family but also to ask him about his day. Yes, our elders love to hear about us but what about them? Their lives are no less valuable, their days no less important. If you have all been vaccinated, go over and have a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. Take your coat off when you walk in the room. Sit on the chair and be there for them – even if it is only for half an hour. Make the time count. And if you can, subject to corona safety rules, give them a hug or a pat on the hand. This contact cannot be overestimated.
We have traveled around the world for the privilege of spending more time with our mother (-in-law). Corona may or may not be here to stay. But let’s not let loneliness become the norm. Stay connected. Life is short. Get out of the rut and back to living your life to the fullest.
It’s the only life you have.
The writer is a geriatric social worker based in Jerusalem.