I am not sure if it has been a case of the winter blahs, or simply that I have been very busy, but lately I haven’t felt much like writing. Which is weird. Writing is often how I make sense of my life. I am not sure if that means that my life, of late, makes sense. Or it doesn’t. =)
But today this video jumped off my Facebook feed and made me take notice.
The gist is that human connection is a greater predictor of longevity than other things like exercise, weight, or even if you’re a smoker. This human connection includes your close relationships, but even more significantly, includes casual social interaction with people in your day-to-day life.
And what immediately struck me is that people with disabilities and their caregivers often live very socially isolated lives. Like really socially isolated lives. Caregiving, in particular, is very socially isolating. During my peak caregiving years it was not uncommon for me to go entire days without any significant adult conversation. I was fortunate to have two able-bodied children who kept me connected to a community through their activities. And to a certain extent I had some human contact with the rotation of staff in my home. But I also spent huge amounts of time alone watching others live seemingly busy and rich lives. I knew people cared about me and that helped immensely. But I was often still very alone. In many ways I am grateful for the emergence of social media during those years. Things like Facebook and Wondercafe (the United Church of Canada discussion site) formed the cornerstone of my social life and nurtured friendships that in many cases went from virtual to real.
Research study after research study indicates that one of the most deleterious effects of caregiving is that it isolates. The other burdens of caregiving – sleep deprivation, the staggering workload, the constant worry you feel for your loved one – are often significantly mitigated if one has a caring community. It isn’t just because people are more likely to help if they have insight into your daily life, though there is that. It is because if you have community you know you’re not alone. And those little bits of human contact, as the TED talk shows, are lifelines.
Yesterday during a meeting I attended the idea of intentional community emerged. Intentional community is exactly what it sounds like. It is the notion that one creates community in a deliberate manner – either for themselves, or for someone they care about. It was noted that often people expect community to “just happen” – which is a huge problem when you are an isolated caregiver. Community often doesn’t “just happen”. Which means that one needs to actively try to create community. Historically things like attending church often nurtured community. But these days less so. And finding the time and energy to create a knitting club, or a book club, or a coffee gathering is hard. Particularly if you’re swamped with caregiving duties.
So if you want to help a caregiver reach out to them. Invite them to activities. Call them. Drop by with muffins. And when they don’t have the time to accept your invitation call them again. Send an email. Ask them about their day. It is okay that you can’t help with their caregiving duties. It’s cool that you don’t know the front end of a feeding tube from the back end. What matters is that you’re their friend and that you reach out. And perhaps even more important, you keep the option of their reaching out to you always available.
Being a friend can be hard work. And it matters. More than we thought perhaps.