Friday, June 2, 2023

Social Isolation and the Ties that Bind

It was Thursday evening, and I was spending it with my parents.  That's pretty much every Thursday evening now, along with every Tuesday morning, and whenever else is necessary.

For the rest of the week, it's home aides, who are great.  It's visiting nurses, who tend to the wounds on Dad's feet and take blood samples.  

But on Thursdays, it's me.  I do what must happen on Thursday evenings.  I take out the trash and recycling.  I prep a simple dinner, and do anything else that needs to get done around the house.  I make sure Dad takes his evening meds, and help him get to bed.  I observe, just to see how they're doing.

Most importantly, I just spend time with them.  Lately, I've been introducing them to the sci fi series Firefly, which they'd never seen.  They're enjoying it, best I can tell, and I'm finding it a delight in the rewatch all these many years later.  Sharp and smart, both playful and very human, it holds up well.  And it ain't recent.  I mean, it's been twenty years.  Firefly is a "vintage sci fi classic" at this point.  The time between Firefly and the year of our Lord Twenty Twenty Three in the arc of sci fi storytelling is the same amount of time between Star Wars (1976) and Forbidden Planet (1956).

Spending time is important, particularly for Dad.  Mom gets out, goes and does things with friends, goes to exercise, goes birding.  Dad...can't.  Getting out on his own just isn't possible.  Sixty pounds of gear...his wheelchair, the oxygen on which he depends...must go with him.  So he's at home, pretty much most of the time.  

Dad is an extrovert, unlike his bookish, inward older son, and contemporary aging is rough on the extroverts.  Life in my house growing up was an extrovert's paradise, filled with energy, dinner parties and musical evenings, tennis socials and choir gatherings, laughter and wine and song.  Dad loved being around other human beings, connecting with them and sharing stories.  His world was rich with friends and well-liked colleagues, church folks and community theater performers.  It was a story rich with characters and presence.   Now that's mostly passed.

As human beings are social creatures, this takes a toll.

Retirement communities can help with this, but when you move into late stage senescence, that doesn't help.  Nursing homes aren't bubbling with social energy, no matter what the stock photos in the brochures might suggest.

That, and Dad wants to be at home.  He loves the familiarity of the space.  He loves his piano, his light-filled "great room," with its view through trees to green fields beyond.  He loves the foxes and the deer, and the countless birds at the feeder.  There's a stream of consistent characters still, caregivers and nurses, doctors and family.  In that, he is fortunate.

But isolation still weighs.  "All of my friends," Dad will say on regular occasion, "are dead."  There'll be times where Dad just sort of goes silent off in a corner, or at a window.  I'll find him in his chair, half asleep in the kitchen, midway through getting something.  Or we'll be on a video call with his doctor, and after sharing a few reminiscences about his younger days, then drift away.

For others at the same stage in life, those with less support, it can become a smothering shroud.  In the absence of mobility, and burdened with physical issues that make it hard to get out, with family far away and friends either dead or equally isolated, that isolation can be hard thing on a soul.

Last night, my folks ate dinner and together we watched Wheel of Fortune.  Dad was nodding off in his wheelchair, as he so often does.  The phone rang.  I got to the phone first, expecting it to be another in the endless stream of telemarketers and scammers that prey on the old.   Mom answers those calls, pretty much always.

I recognized the name on the Caller ID.  It was someone from their church, the church where I grew up.  It was a member of the choir, someone who'd sung with Dad back when he could make it in for choir rehearsals.  "Oh, it's E," Mom said.  "Here, talk to E."  And the phone went to Dad.  Dad perked up, stirred out of the Wheel of Torpor by a familiar name.  Dad put it on speakerphone, because for some reason it's always on speakerphone, and they chatted about an upcoming choir event.  They discussed the possibility of Dad getting to church, and ways the choir could make it happen.  Dad told a joke or two, and I could hear the choir member's wife laugh in the background.

It was a pleasant interlude, and a place of human connection, and a reminder of the vitality of the fellowship that rises from Christian community.  As our population ages, those ties that bind will become all the more essential.