When an idea has found its time, it seems to show up everywhere. Who didn’t know about climate change a decade ago? Now, despite the best efforts of corporate idiots in the fossil fuel business, we learn more about it daily. No Milwaukeean over 60 can resist recounting deep snow and bitter cold of the old days. Only Fellini could illustrate a more detailed homage to the weather than we older folks who knew what winter meant back then. But over the years, this story about the old times has been interpreted as quaint nostalgia on our part instead of as an insight into the scientific record. The idea of our world’s demise was then not as popular as today. We were not the climate change deniers of our time; we were its prophets in a desert of condescension. Some may believe our time is nearly over, but I say our ideas may have finally found their time.
Our social connections with old people, disabled people, and single people has not been a popular topic of discussion until relatively recently either. The people without limbs because of the hurts of war seemed to be among us more back when I was a boy and not on street corners seeking aid as they are now. Disabled veterans lived in the apartment next door, the back bedroom, or at church. We saw their goiters, prostheses, and trachiotomies. We knew their smells and bathed them — did their laundry, too.
Widows in my childhood were invited for holidays and sent home with food for almost a week. A quarter of a loaf would be sent next door when we knew we would not be using the whole loaf ourselves. Orphans and children of single moms were taken on trips with other families. Single people sometimes moved in with us for a time and were viewed as a family asset — a person who might be able to baby sit or accompany a younger teen to a movie when parents didn’t want to do so. Roma people didn’t live “over there,” but right here. Jews didn’t either. Nor did migrant workers.
Those were not the good old days. There was no real silver lining in our poverty or in the spotty and substandard care people received when in need. When we were told in church that it was noble to have little, we heard the lie. But we were connected to one another and lived in community. We went to parks to be with one another and to interact — if even briefly — with other people. We were not glued to phones in games so divorced from real place that we’d be sent into traffic unaware of our surroundings. What strikes me about Pokemon Go is not that it continues to isolate people, but rather that it does so under the guise of connecting them to each other and the outdoors.
Recently articles have appeared about the health risks of isolation to seniors and singles. Apparently the time for this idea has come. Research is showing that there are health benefits to human connection and human touch. The solutions to the extreme isolation faced by many aging people and singles that are suggested in these articles, however, are facile and somewhat impersonal. Aged people are encouraged to reach out to people whom they do not know, people paid by agencies to listen to them and their interests or concerns. Singles are told to work on themselves so that they can be more attractive partners when Mr. or Ms. Right comes along. If the dating site to which they subscribe isn’t working, try another. This is plain claptrap.
I am not suggesting that there is zero merit in these ideas, but I insist that our efforts would be better aimed at the isolating rather than the isolated. Let me explain.
For nearly 10 years a friend of mine and I took an old woman named Viola to lunch every few weeks. She had money, but we paid. We were pretty sure she thought we were her boyfriends, but we did not dissuade her. When her son came to town and expressed his concern that we might have our eyes on her estate, we held our tongues and continued to take her out. When she peed on the floor of the restaurant, we left a big tip for the server and went back a couple of weeks later. That same friend of mine stayed connected to another older woman for more than 20 years, calling her on birthdays and holidays even after she moved 1,000 miles away. We listened and we engaged these women in our lives.
When my late husband and I moved into our home almost 30 years ago, we befriended our neighbors who were nearly twice our ages. Holiday celebrations, dinners out, and informal connections over the back fence continued until they died. Now that I am the age they were when we moved in, their daughter reaches out to me to keep connected, returning the interest and concern I invested in her parents.
There was also our friend Trudy whom we met when she was in her 60s and widowed several times. We stayed connected to her, even holding hands as she shared her thoughts and aspirations. She had an amazing mind that could have been obscured by her charm and unwaivering interest in others had we not be listening closely. My friends Gregg and Rose saw a similar wit and intelligence in my late husband. When Gregg learned of Paul’s impairments from MS, he found reason after reason to hang out with him, re-igniting an old friendship into a new and more powerful one. Rose also engaged Paul in warm and meaningful conversations, talked about current events, and traded ideas about art.
When Paul died, a young neighbor saw me walking the dog and stopped her car to ask about the ambulance she had seen the day before. When I told her Paul had died, she got out of the car and held me, right on the street, for a long time. Just a few weeks ago, I walked past her home with two pals while she was entertaining family friends on the porch. She crossed her lawn to embrace me and to get introduced my buddies.
In each of these situations, it was not Viola, Trudy, Doris, Bob, or — more recently — I who needed to reach out to others. We were the isolated. Society was isolating us as old, widowed, disabled, or single. As our nation has tilted toward greed and indifference to those who are not effectively part of the production system, it observes isolation and monetizes it, extracting even more from those who already gave.