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Combating Loneliness: Tips and Resources in the Time of Covid-19

Bob Pacl shares tips and resources on combating loneliness.
Combating Loneliness: Tips and Resources in the Time of Covid-19
Bob Pacl, Social Worker
Bob Pacl is a Care Management Social Worker at Emerson Hospital.

Prakash Chandran: If you feel isolated due to the Coronavirus and feeling lonely, know that you're not alone. And luckily there are some steps you can take to beat the blues. We're going to talk about it today with Bob Pacl, a Social Worker at Emerson Hospital. This is Health Works Here. The podcast from Emerson Hospital, I'm Prakash Chandran. So, Bob, I think that this is such an important topic. I myself have so many friends who are struggling with loneliness and isolation, especially during these times. I can honestly say that even my wife used to be able to go out to mommy groups and get out more with our toddler is struggling with this. Cause you know, we all can't do the things that we used to. So in terms of loneliness, who have you seen this effect and how can we even begin to address it?

Bob Pacl: Regardless of gender, regardless of culture, age, what we do for a living, you know, we've all had our patterns of life disrupted. We're not seeing the same friends, coworkers, and family members, and we're all feeling some level of loneliness. You know, and it's interesting because before this pandemic and before quarantining, you know, there was some predictable patterns about loneliness and some of them were surprising. There was some research done that really was countered of popular opinion that elders or seniors are the most lonely, you know, group in society. And it actually became pretty clear that loneliness is actually more prevalent among young. The thinking about this is that loneliness stems from your sense of your social connections, that they're not as good as they could be or that you want them to be. And you know, the difference between old and young might be due to different expectations about social connection.

One other interesting finding is that loneliness is more common with lower income. Gender and, you know, how many people you live with really not practice and predict and loneliness, it's socioeconomic and age that are the primary drivers. But to your point Prakash, the days of COVID that we're seeing changing some of those patterns, loneliness is increased among all adults, particularly elders, because they're being the most aggressive about quarantining themselves. And somewhat paradoxically, the young have also been more impacted than others because of the level of their disruption. I mean, think about not having extra curricular activities like athletics or not being in school and having that structure, not seeing extended family members. So they have been particularly hard hit.

Host: Yeah. And I'm sure that's relatable to a lot of people listening for all of the reasons that you mentioned. So, you know, my question is, is it okay to feel lonely during these times? I'm sure that when we struggle with it as a society, as we go through this together, we're often wondering, wait, should I be feeling this way? Everyone's going through this together. Should I be feeling as lonely as I am, maybe speak to that a little bit.

Bob Pacl: In general, not in a pandemic time, everyone's lonely at different times in their lives. And it's really not harmful for most people, healthy people feel lonely and they do something about it. They go join a gym or they get involved in community activity. But in this pandemic, things are different because life has really changed and long periods of loneliness can be harmful. And really the harm is because it can lead to depression. Depression, and loneliness, you know, kind of go hand in hand if that loneliness is long-term in nature and substantial. And here is kind of how it works when you're feeling lonely, what you're really feeling is you're feeling unhappy with the quality or the quantity of your social connection. And when that happens over time, you start to turn your attention, you know, within. You look at yourself and you start thinking in terms of what's wrong with me? You know, what, why are people withdrawing from me? And it's that kind of negative looking at yourself that amplifies your sense of being lonely. And it actually can kind of create a downward spiral where you isolate socially even more and that can lead to depression. So, you know, it's really about the length and depth of your loneliness and that's what you look out for and worry about.

Host: So if people are experiencing this and going down the spiral of loneliness, what should they do to combat this? I mean, they can't do the same things that they used to do or connect with people in the same way. So what tips might you offer them to help them get out of this rut?

Bob Pacl: What I would tell my patients is that there's really three things you have to pay attention to if you believe that loneliness is a problem for you or a family member, first, you have to understand it's a feeling, you know, you feel lonely. And it's about the, how we feel about our social connectedness in our lives. And part and parcel with that is because it's a feeling it can be changed. And so that understanding that it's a feeling that could be changed is really the first thing. The second thing is not everybody's the same, not everybody defines social connection, the same way. Some people will talk about it as fun activities. I need more fun activities with people. Other people will really be more on the quantity side. I want to be out a lot with a lot of people and have a lot of contact.

And then, you know, some, for some people it's really about closeness to maybe one other person or a few other people, and it's feeling warmth and understanding and care. So the second guidance I'd give is that clearly there are different kinds of social connection and you should figure out what's important to me. What should I be doing to change that? And the third thing is really what I just alluded to, take action. You've got to take action in order to feel more socially connected, come up with a list of things that you could do that you think would improve things. For example, I want to spend more time with friends or I want to feel more connected to my family. And from that, you can define very specifically what you might do and it should be achievable. You don't want to create something that's difficult to be successful with.

So for example, in days of COVID, you might get your friends and neighbors together to collaborate on putting together a holiday cookbook of family recipes that everyone could share, very achievable, very specific act and very social act. And the last thing I'd say is to define barriers to success. You want to have a good experience. So a project like a cookbook, the cookbook example is likely to be more successful if you do some planning upfront, to find when you're going to meet and, and how you're going to need and what rules people could sign up for. And by taking effective actions like this, people can really improve how they feel about their social connectedness.

Host: Absolutely. I really love that framework that you articulated. So, you know, first of all, it's a feeling, that feeling of loneliness and that feeling can be changed and then figuring out for yourself, what type of social connection you yearn? Is it quantity or is it the quality of those connections? And then finally taking action. I love that cookbook idea, getting your friends and neighbors together to do something like that. I did have a question though. You know, all of this sounds like if you are that type of person that can go through that framework and take those steps, that's wonderful. But I personally have friends that it feels like that feeling has started to consume them. Because as you mentioned before, that feeling of loneliness is so closely tied with self-worth and it feels like they're kind of in a rut. So as a friend or as a family member, what are things that we can do to help people that might be going through this?

Bob Pacl: Probably the best thing you can do is, is suggest actions that people could take to get them out of the current rut. You know, if they're sitting and watching TV for hours at a time, probably the best thing you can do is to suggest some things that would change, that it would get more social connectedness in their life. You know, it's sort of a double edged sword, but social media and the telephone really are, there the tools at hand. And if you're in quarantined in your own home. My own 13 year old daughter would live on her iPhone if she could, we don't let her, but even she says, you know, I'm lonely and this helps, but it's not as good as being with my friends. But nonetheless, you need to use what tools you have. I, for one, tell you what I do. I have a lot of home projects. I said, I never texted more in my life. I don't really like to text that much, but sending pictures and having interactions with friends about household projects, you know, I'm sending house projects back and forth between friends all the time.

Another idea people have is to reconnect with people they've lost touch with. That's a way to sort of build up new relationships and also to sort of have the excitement of catching up with people in what's been going on. Do something new that is meaningful or fun. One of my daughters is started taking virtual Banjo lessons, then another daughter and started painting landscapes. And my wife we've lived in the same house for 20 years, has started gardening and loves it, find something new. One patient of mine put together a project with a sister and began collaborating on family ancestry research. You know, they came up with that as a project. Another thing you could do with is a similar kind of activity is an online family photo album. There's lots of things you can do with family that sort of pool resources and create, you know, good outcomes for the family.

Host: As we wrap up here, I wanted to ask, there's a lot of things that we covered here today. I'm sure you and I could talk really for hours on this subject and figure out good ways for people to combat loneliness, but in everything that you've seen, all the patients that you've seen and to our audience, that's listening, what's one piece of wisdom that you would want people to walk away from this conversation with.

Bob Pacl: The first thing is this pandemics going to end soon. So it isn't going to go forever. This isn't the permanent reality. So remember that and use it, use it productively. If you're creative, you can actually use the increased time you have at home to gain some benefits that you're not going to get otherwise. So, you know, look at it, look at it as an opportunity, not as a horrible experience.

Host: That's a perfect place to end because one thing this pandemic has done, whether it's viewed as positively or negatively is it has caused us to stand still forcibly and refocus on what's important. And I think using this time that we have in a productive way, as you mentioned, potentially having a schedule for yourself and getting things done that maybe you put off for awhile might be a good way to use that time. So thank you so much, Bob, for everything that you do and for recognizing that so many people are going through this. I certainly learned a lot in this conversation and I truly appreciate it. That's Bob Hacl, a social worker at Emerson Hospital. Head to for more information. Thanks for listening to Emerson's Health Works Here Podcast, subscribe to this podcast on your favorite podcast source, including Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, and Spotify.