Physical Distancing with Social Connection, Not Social Distancing

Physical Distancing with Social Connection, Not Social Distancing

One of my closest friends, Mike, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two young kids. Several months ago, Mike’s mom, a widow, moved a few blocks away, in part to spend more time with her grandkids. “Gramsie” volunteers at their school, ventures with them on city excursions and regularly shares family meals. However, with the coronavirus, these activities have been suspended. Indefinitely. She and they are practicing social distancing. But all still crave connection. So they’re improvising. Over the last few days, she has been reading books to her grandkids over FaceTime. If this crisis continues, she may even need to channel her old school teacher ways and provide some home schooling via video conference from her apartment. I know Mike, like many parents in his spot, juggling kids at home and attempting to work from home, would appreciate the relief. Gramsie will no doubt relish the social company of her grandchildren.

Social distancing – the practice of maintaining a distance between people, typically at least six feet, and minimizing in-person social encounters — may be a key in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19. In the absence of a vaccine, containment coupled with widespread testing are our best bets to minimize the impact of the pandemic.

However, we can do better than social distancing. We need physical distancing. And with it, a very large dose of social connection at the same time. Some are calling this remote connecting.

Take older adults, for example. There are currently about 45 million people 65 years or older, and about a quarter live alone. Studies show that more than 40% feel lonely at least some of the time. Both social isolation and loneliness are linked to a myriad of health risks ranging from depression to heart disease to strokes and more. These are the facts prior to the pandemic. Social distancing will likely make this worse, particularly given that older adults face the dual threat of isolation coupled with the anxiety of a disease that hits their demographic the hardest.

But the risk of social distancing holds true for all of us. Particularly as more measures of disease containment increase to a complete lockdown, or sheltering in place, we will all struggle with the ability to connect with others on a regular basis. It might be hardest for Millennials who are cited as the loneliest group according to a recent Cigna study, or it could be for Gen Xers like Mike, who are squeezed managing their young families at home while attempting to be productive working from home.

Collectively, we’re all going to have to do something about it. We’re going to have to change our behaviors even more than we may initially realize. We need to practice physical distancing with a heavy dose of connection. Fortunately, even though it’s just been a few days of this new reality, we’re already seeing some good examples.

Kids playing their instruments to a self-quarantined older adult neighbor (Source: YouTube)

How about the kids in Ohio who sought out an older neighbor and played their instruments at a safe distance to bring her joy? Or Italians spontaneously singing from their balconies?

My friend, Joy Zhang, is the co-founder of Mon Ami, a venture-backed start-up marketplace that links college students with older adults for social visits. They are tackling the risks of social isolation and loneliness through intergenerational connections. During this current time, they have turned virtual. They have developed a volunteer phone bank to connect isolated older adults with those who wish to call on them.

Alex Smith, a current Encore Public Voices Fellow (Joy and I were part of the initial cohort last year), is getting creative with his efforts to combat loneliness in the UK. His organization, The Cares Family, is tackling loneliness at the present with a combination of technology, such as Zoom and Skype calls, with physical postcards and poems sent by younger people to older adults.

In Canada, the term #caremongering has been trending. What started as a way to help vulnerable people in Toronto has spread throughout the country with more than 35 Facebook groups set up in less than three days encompassing tens of thousands of people. The purpose is to link people who can help with those who need it.

We’ve seen the same thing in our neighborhood in Austin. Nextdoor has been the primary social media vehicle. People are virtually reaching out to neighbors – in some cases for the first time – to see how they can be helpful doing necessary errands. It’s a tech savvy area so it’s not uncommon for people in their 80s to be connected and active. Given that it’s an area that likes to bar-b-que, one of the neighbors has volunteered to cook and deliver BBQ food.

A neighbor offering his BBQ skills for the neighborhood (Nextdoor)

These stories, and plenty of others that we don’t know about, are uplifting at such a critical time. And what’s so important is, while we’re most concerned about our individual and family’s health, these are examples of people reaching out to people outside of their immediate network. This is what contributes to the healthy social fabric of our communities.

But it doesn’t have to stop there. With the ease of today’s technology, we can reach out and virtually connect with people beyond our neighborhood and networks. Maybe it is a time to engage in sites like Mon Ami and make sure people are covered both near and far.

We also need to recognize that some means of communication are more enriching than others. According to former Surgeon General and author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Vivek Murty, “Video conferences and phone calls are more rich than texting or emailing alone.” Let’s err on the side of using the video conferencing apps even if we’re having a bad hair day.

Social distancing is markedly better than no social distancing. But we’re far better employing physical distancing with a heavy dose of social connection. Pick up your phone, use your video chatting app or your instrument, and do your part. We’ll all be better for it now and on the other side of this crisis.

Unfortunately, we’re likely in for a long, bumpy ride, but let’s make it an opportunity to bring us all together for the better. Who knows, maybe a person you reach out to would love to virtually read to your kids or, better yet, might be able and willing to remotely home school your kids. Maybe this an opportunity for you and your family to gain a virtual Gramsie.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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