As a recovering alcoholic now sober 26 years, six months and four days, I’ve been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for exactly that length of time because a man I met at my first meeting back in June of 1994 became my sponsor and helped me walk away from booze and stay away.
I now sponsor several fellow travelers (as we are known to each other), including a woman in her 40s who lost her husband several years ago. Dealing with loss, and the loneliness that it brought, continues her challenge to remain sober.
Sadly, I have three longtime friends, not fellow travelers, but ones that have also lost their husbands within the last 10 years. One is a friend from our Washington days and two others are women that I have known and loved for many, many years — one going back to high school in the 1960s and the other from my days as a reporter/photographer for a newspaper in Illinois in the 1970s.
All talk about the loneliness that comes after losing a spouse they have known loved and lived with through good and bad times over the years. They also talk about the increased loneliness that comes from isolation now required by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those affected by the virus have an increased chance of mental issues, says a study by the University of Oxford, which found one in five survivors suffered increased anxiety or depression.
“I think we’re going to need a lot more data over time here to see exactly does it actually affect the person directly or again is it more of that social component,” Dr. Ryan Wagoner, a University of South Florida Health Associate Professor of Psychiatry tells ABC News. “When somebody is diagnosed with COVID, there are a number of new stressors that arise as well, and so the question is, is it those new stressors, or is it something from the virus directly?”
“We’re actually seeing a rise in individuals who number one has contracted COVID-19 and are experiencing depression or sleep disruption and anxiety,” said Dr. LaDonna Butler, a licensed mental health counselor and CEO of the Well for Life. “We also have seen individuals who have family members who’ve contracted the disease also having very similar outcomes.”
For many who face staying at home, in isolation, a spouse is a companion and lifeline, but when that spouse dies, the loneliness increases, along with increased stress and anxiety.
Public health experts say a “loneliness epidemic” existed in America before COVID-19 disrupted our lives. An estimated 35.7 million people live alone with no meaningful social contact for months on end.
COVID-19 made the problem even worse.
Experts are rightly concerned about the mental health ramifications of this widespread isolation, especially since there’s no agreed-upon tipping point at which acute loneliness transitions into a chronic problem with long-term consequences. A group of doctors from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School warned in an April 22 commentary published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that physical distancing and stress caused by the pandemic, combined with rising firearm sales, could worsen the suicide crisis the U.S. has already been weathering for more than a decade.
For such a common experience, loneliness is surprisingly slippery to define clinically. Loneliness is not included in the DSM-5, the official diagnostic manual for mental health disorders, but it goes hand-in-hand with many conditions that are. It’s often lumped together with social isolation, but the two concepts are different. Social isolation is an objective indicator of how much contact somebody has with other people, whereas loneliness is “the subjective feeling of isolation,” says Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco who studies loneliness. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, nor does being around people mean you’re not, Perissonotto says. Loneliness is a feeling only the person experiencing it can truly identify.
Cigna health insurer reports 60% of American adults felt “some degree of loneliness, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.”
Losing a lifelong partner like a spouse could make this worse.
Today, more than ever, we need to take time to stay in contact with friends who have lost their spouses and are now alone. It could help.