When Winter Becomes Solitary Confinement

The short days and long cold nights of winter can have a negative effect on people who already feel lonely and isolated.
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The short days and long cold nights of winter can have a negative effect on people who already feel lonely and isolated. Often these are older people who are physically challenged and fearful of weather conditions that can pose a danger, such as falling on ice or getting pneumonia. The number of people living alone has increased from 5 percent in the 1920s to 27 percent in 2013, and this percentage is much larger in big cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Obviously, not everyone who lives alone is lonely, but those who are can often become mentally or physically ill because of it. Isolation and loneliness is painful to the spirit. Even the prison system is beginning to understand that solitary confinement can cause irreparable harm. According to a study by the American Friends Society, the long-term effects of such confinement include insomnia, paranoia, uncontrollable fear and anger, the risk of suicide, and PTSD.

There was a very moving article in The New York Times a couple of months ago about The Lonely Death of George Bell, a 72-year-old man who died alone in his apartment. His body was not discovered until a neighbor alerted police about the smell emanating from his apartment. Emergency workers had to break into the one-bedroom apartment and get past years of clutter. Investigators spent months trying to track down any relatives or friends and piece together a history. What made the story even more poignant was that the man was not always isolated. As a young man he had loving parents, he had friends he worked with, but over the years some of them moved to other states and they lost touch. Changes were gradual as he aged. He suffered from diabetes and became overweight, which kept him from going to restaurants to dine, preferring ordering takeout. The more he confined himself to his apartment, the more cluttered and disorganized it became, a sign of mental illness and spiritual distress.

"For early humans, being alone was no way to live," wrote Gretchen Reynolds in The New York Times Well blog, So Lonely it Hurts. "Those on the tribe's periphery faced increased risks of starvation, predation and early death." We humans are social animals who are meant to interact. Being isolated from each other can cause unhealthy physiological responses, such as our body producing more stress-related bio-chemicals that may reduce the ability to fight viral infections. Reynolds cited a University of Chicago study that found, "the lonelier you are the more your attention is drawn toward negative social information. Lonely people seemed inadvertently hyper vigilant to social threats. It unknowingly nudges them to act in a more defensive, hostile way toward others with whom they would like to connect."

The Times article about George Bell got a great deal of emphatic response from readers who pointed out how important it was to maintain contact with others, to cherish friends, and visit with them. In our busy world and our distraction with our smartphones, we may not stop to think about people we know who are in isolation. We can make a small gesture, such as phoning just to say hello or perhaps invite the person over for lunch, or bring them lunch if they can't get out. We can let them know about websites where they can find connection through social media for meditation, guided prayers, as well as mental and physical health care sites. There are professional health care chaplains whose job it is to provide spiritual comfort to people of any faith or no faith who need someone to talk with. Someone who will not judge them in any way, but simply allow them to release some of their feelings. They can simply chat with one of these trained persons without having to reveal their identity if that makes them more comfortable.

One reader responding to the story of George Bell told of his wife dying two years ago and his daughter worrying about him living alone. "This 88-year-old doesn't worry about living alone, but understands her concern. Next spring I expect to occupy the bedroom she has decorated for me. Wonderful daughter, lucky me."

We should all be so lucky.