By Lauren Mahakian. Originally published in “The Alzheimer’s Whisperer” in PV News

It’s feels like a bazillion months since March 2020 when we first isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t so bad at first, other than facing a shortage of toilet paper, face masks, and sanitizing supplies. Maybe I should include the shortage of many food items, but that was thankfully short-lived.

Since March, we’ve learned a bit about how resilient we can be. We found creative ways to meet over distances, including drive-by visits, longer telephone calls, and driveway or yard gatherings that maintained safe social distances. I implemented distanced care visits, both virtual and live, in some cases standing in the street and waving to people through their window while talking on the phone. Then there was Zoom, the free conferencing platform that became synonymous with video meetings just weeks after isolation orders. Its use increased by more than 50% in just that first month. We became adept at the social-distancing thing.

After a while, though, the routine grew old. Isolation takes its toll on everyone. We all know my next line; how do we think this affects loved ones with dementia? Perhaps a surprise, I want to focus on ALL of us, because we literally are all in this together.
We all need human connection, but we especially need touch. There is science behind this statement, but first let’s think about what we know from our own experience. In darkness, we make do by feeling our way, but we miss the light. Even the slightest glimmer is enough for our eyes to adjust to fill in the voids. The same is true for touch. We have made do without, filling the voids with distance or technology, but we miss being close and touching.

Today, when friends meet their immediate urge is to embrace, shake hands, or put an arm around one another. I’ve seen it again and again. This urge is often met with an awkward moment until one offers the other a smile and then a wave, an elbow, or a virtual fist-bump.

The connection is there—but it’s not the same. The isolation, in fact, has us wanting more touch, not less. Our conscious brains tell us to keep our distance, but our unconscious minds are wired differently.

In a 2013 study at Stanford University, researchers found that oxytocin—a powerful hormone known as the love hormone—is released through social connection. This in turn triggers the release of serotonin from nerve cells that produce that happy feeling we hopefully all know. This is why our relationships, especially with our parents and significant others, are deeprooted, owing to complex biochemical reasons that involve strong emotions. If you’ve ever been involved in a long-distance romantic relationship, you certainly understand that distanced encounters over the phone or video are not the same as in-person.
Even in non-romantic relationships, physical touch is important and it’s not just getting lost in the noise that is COVID-19. It’s also lost amid our social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram. Maybe that’s why these social tools, which can bridge thousands of miles or reunite families, are also addicting to us. With every ‘like’ or a kind remark from a friend, we seek more.
We are yearning for authentic relationships with people.

I’ve also been fascinated by our failure to communicate sometimes. The whole of human communication includes body language, said to be more important than our word choices. Whether it’s the delays that accompany video meetings, the two-dimensional imagery framed by the sender, or something deeper—the inability to reach out and touch someone—the
experience is not the same. More conflict has resulted. Rates of depression and suicide are up.

Technology does not meet our social needs as humans.

As we look forward to the end of isolation, suffering pandemic burnout, let’s keep in mind that what we are really missing one another, even friends who can disagree with respect and a smile. If you or a loved one are suffering depression, please don’t hesitate to reach out and call someone who can help.

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