By Dr. Peggy Determeyer
Director, Community Bioethics and Aging Center

For nearly two months, it is difficult to listen to a news program without hearing about the coronavirus and the need to maintain “social distancing.”  Several experts have expressed dismay at the use of this term, noting that we are not to engage in social distancing, but rather, physical distancing.  We still need to socialize, and I tend to agree – humans are not meant to live in solitude.

Why is socializing important? What does it mean when we need to live in community?  What is the evidence?  Living in community entails a number of characteristics: we talk, hug, laugh, cry, tell stories, and share our lives.  We know that children deprived of touch, an early form of socialization, do not thrive.  The need for touch begins early in our human lives: imaging studies have shown that in-utero twins begin touching each other as early as 14 weeks’ gestation (Castiello et al, 2010).  Connection with others is essential to an infant’s (and later child’s) ability to grow in community and bond.

How does this affect us as we age?  Our need for connectedness continues throughout our lives.  Geriatrician and psychiatrist Gerald Singer (2018) offers that “most of us are psychologically and biologically ‘programmed’ to need social networks.”  Numerous studies have demonstrated that social groups associated with church, family, recreation, or work, give us a shared sense of belonging, but also bolster our health and well-being, supporting longer lives, reducing susceptibility to illness, and enhancing life satisfaction (Gleibs et al, 2011).  Socialization has very real benefits to our physical and mental health.  What we do is not even as important as the fact that we engage with others.  Travel, hobbies, music, learning new things are only some of the ways that we can expand our engagement.

If socialization is so important, what are we doing to ourselves by staying apart?  There have been a number of news items, articles, and social media posts on ways of helping ourselves through this difficult time.  I have noticed that even the news casts are making an effort to provide positive stories and even just showing nice visuals to help us to stay calm.  We know this time won’t last forever, and staying connected is important.  Letter-writing, telephone calls, and emails are just some of the ways that we can remain connected.  Letting others know that you are thinking about them and care is an important element in socializing.  You can even trade stories – the quarantine has been compared to a major weather event such as a hurricane, an event with which we are all too familiar.  The difference is that we don’t really know when this is going to end.

As our area begins to unwind the quarantine, let’s be careful.  The virus is very much an unseen presence in our midst, so we need to be careful.  At the same time, let’s concentrate on physical distancing, not removing ourselves socially from those that are important to us.  There is a difference – at our core, humans are still social beings even if we can’t always have physical proximity.

 

Reference:

Castiello, U., Becchio, C., Zoia, S., Nelini, C., Sartori, L., Blason, L., et al. (2010). Wired to be Social: The Ontogeny of Human Interaction. PLoS ONE, 5(10), e13199.

Gleibs, I. H., et al. (2011).  “No Country for Old Men? The Role of a ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ in Promoting Social Engagement and Psychological Well-being in Residential Care.”  Aging & Mental Health 15(4): 456-466.