Cabin Fever and Social Isolation


February 21, 2015 by Jean

As a retiree living alone – particularly one who has high needs for solitude – I am at risk for social isolation. (See Transitioning to Retirement: The Issue of Social Relationships.) During the summer before my retirement, I developed a plan to guard against this risk by making an effort to have at least one meaningful social interaction per week (for example, by having someone over for lunch or dinner, visiting a friend, or going on a social outing with others).

But since moving home to Maine to live full-time last May, I have found this plan more difficult to implement than I anticipated. During the more than six months that my new addition was under construction, the noise, mess, and reduced access to space made me reluctant to invite people over and I saw much less of friends than I had anticipated. Ironically, the very presence of all the construction guys made me crave solitude, leading me to turn down some evening invitations in favor of some quiet down time. During the summer, when I spent much of my time outdoors, I wasn’t really conscious of the social isolation. By late fall, however, when I was forced indoors into space that was made physically uncomfortable by the construction, I began to feel deprived of social interaction.

Just before the New Year, although work on my house was still going on, I invited friends over for a meal and declared my period of social isolation over. In the weeks that followed, I fully moved into and claimed my new space, and hosted the January lunch gathering of my W.O.W. retiree group. But before I could get into the swing of my reclaimed social life, winter arrived with a vengeance. Since late January, we have had a snow storm every three days. Once again, I am reluctant to invite people over, because access to my house (at the end of a rural dirt road) can be iffy in bad weather. Making plans that involve going somewhere is also tricky, because getting out requires several hours of shoveling after each storm. The result is that I’ve been mostly staying home.

By last weekend, I realized that I had a bad case of cabin fever. It was discouraging to realize that we were only halfway through February, because it felt like it had already been a year long. It is one thing so stay home because I want to in the summer, but quite a different thing to stay home because getting out is difficult.

At that point, I realized that I needed to reinstate my “one meaningful social interaction per week” rule, which I had given up on during the long months of construction chaos. But when I stopped to figure out how long it had been since  my last social event or visit, I was surprised to realize that my friend Anne had come by to visit and to help me move some furniture just a few days earlier, and that I had been out to lunch with my W.O.W. retiree group just a few days before that. In other words, I had met my goal for social interaction, and it was not enough. On Tuesday, I made a point of driving into Portland for an afternoon visit with my friend Joyce, but by Friday I was already feeling isolated again.

It turns out that what constitutes social isolation is seasonably variable for me. While one meaningful social interaction per week can be more than adequate for me in summer, I need to build in more interaction in the winter. This is a conundrum because I need to spend more time with people at the very time of year when it is most difficult to do so. I’m thinking that I need to aim for two meaningful social interactions per week during the months of December, January, February and March, but I still need to put some thought into how to do this. Given the weather constraints (especially this winter!), I may need to develop my capacity for spontaneous social occasions, like calling a friend at the last minute for dinner out or a movie. I also need to be more spontaneous about my own life so that I don’t turn down invitations (as I did this week) because of some solitary home project (e.g., painting) that I had planned for that day.

This first year of retirement is turning out to be a learning process, as I discover that problems I had anticipated don’t materialize, that I encounter other problems I didn’t anticipate, and that my carefully laid plans don’t always work out!

18 thoughts on “Cabin Fever and Social Isolation

  1. Jean I found last year a learning year as well. And one where I sequestered myself for my physical and mental health. But now I also am having cabin fever. I have projects that I am catching up on and I do get out once a week for acupuncture, but I miss getting together with friends for lunch as the weather has been so awful here too. I also find if I am in my garden, I don’t need much social interaction as I do in winter. It is a bit different with a husband at home all the time too, but it can present its own problems, although we seem to not get tired of each others constant company.

    I am thinking I need a break from all this snow and cold so we are looking at possible ideas to move to a warmer climate next February for a week or 2. I don’t take many vacations, but perhaps winter would be a good time to take one. Hoping spring starts to show itself soon as this is the coldest Feb. on record here.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, My plan has always been to take a vacation in late March/early April, when there is still snow on the ground here, and go somewhere where it is spring. But this February makes me wonder whether it would also be a good time to get away. (I have a standing invitation from a cousin in southern Florida.) We have no snowstorms in the forecast for this week. Hooray!! One of our local weather forecasters said that we might have a snow loss this week as the sun evaporates some of the snow on the ground and no appreciable new snow is added. We actually had a few hours of temperatures above freezing on Sunday, and it was an exciting event.

  2. Jean R. says:

    It’s interesting that you think you need more social interaction in the winter than in the summer. To me, cabin fever is more about not being free to leave at will rather than the actually going out and interacting with others. (It’s easy to think the two are interchangeable and they’re not.) I’ve figured out that I am far more relaxed when the winter roads are good even if I don’t take advantage of that fact. Cabin fever (again for me) is about the stress of not knowing if I’ll be able to carry out my plans on any given day. I’ve always been a long-range planner. Part of lowering my winter stress (aka cabin fever) this winter has to do with what you mentioned about trying to be more spontaneous, doing less planning ahead. It also helped that I had lined up some big projects that could be done on the computer when I had to stay inside. (I did genealogy research and photo essay books). The fact that you only seem to need one social event a week in the summer, when you have your gardening to keep you busy, leads me to think having inside projects that really keep you engaged intellectually during the winter would help you, too. Maybe just adding a commitment to making one call a week to a friend for a long conversation could substitute for social interaction when it’s impractical to get out twice a week?

    • Jean says:

      Jean, It’s not that I think cabin fever and feelings of social isolation are the same thing, but they seem to be highly correlated for me; and I’m still trying to sort out the relationship between them. Not being able to plan on anything because you never know if you’ll be able to go or not is, I think, a big part of it. I think about inviting people over and then think, “Oh, I’ll just wait until spring.”
      The strategy of having indoor projects for winter that are pleasurable rather than chores is a good one. Maybe I should get to work on starting to plan that new front garden!

  3. I was an only child and don’t usually have a problem being alone. But this wicked winter has taken its toll, and we are looking at warmer options for some of winter 2016. As an educator, you have a very intellectual viewpoint of challenges and solutions. To simple me, I’m just plain tired of shoveling snow every two to three days, seeing white everywhere I look, and not being able to enjoy nature without cleats or snowshoes. Thank heavens for a sense of humor because without laughter this winter could definitely get you down. :-).

    • Jean says:

      Judy, A lot of people seem to be having that reaction to this winter. You’ve got my number; my approach to problem solving tends to be very systematic and analytical. 😐 . I’m encouraged by the rising angle of the sun and the fact that we now have a whole week without a snow storm in the forecast. I think I now understand why they made February the shortest month. If it were even a day longer, suicide rates would skyrocket. Thank goodness this isn’t a leap year!

  4. Carole says:

    We are in Florida for 3 months, going home April 1st. We found the brutal cold and snow of NY to be just too depressing over the last couple of winters. Yes, the snow and ice bring on isolation that can be unbearable, even for a solitude lover such as myself.

    Interestingly, because we are transient residents of Florida for 3 months, we don’t have a lot of meaningful social interactions while we are here. We visit friends every couple of weeks who stay about an hour south of us. But otherwise our social interactions are limited to superficial niceties with those whom we encounter. But I am not complaining; my soul and my brain thrive in the sun and the warmth.

    I love your idea about having more spontaneous social interactions. Can you skype? I’m not sure if that would work or not in terms of meeting social needs. I’ve never done it myself, but maybe if desperate enough would consider it. Just have to make sure I comb my hair first!

    • Jean says:

      Carole, An interesting point about the difficulty of creating meaningful interactions in a place where you are a transient resident. I actually don’t mind cold and snow — although a little less of each would be welcome right now.
      The idea of Skyping with friends and family is an interesting one. I used to love having long phone calls with people as a way to keep in touch, but it seemed as though, as cell phone use exploded, the sound quality of telephone connections deteriorated, with the result that I came to find long phone calls more stressful than pleasurable. The visual component of skype might bring back some of the nuance that I no longer find in the sound component.

  5. Diana Studer says:

    On Monday, our builders start – then it will be my turn for cabin fever.
    My plans for U3A I have set aside for After.

    I will also heave a sigh of relief as each weekday draws to an end and the house and garden are OUR space, for the cats, and the people. If I lived alone I’d be an utter hermit …

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I hope your building process proceeds more quickly than mine did so that you can get the house and garden back for yourselves. I must admit that, even when the builders were gone for the evening or the weekend, I still didn’t feel as though the space was mine, because the mess and chaos and so much of their stuff remained. I should pay more attention to how much I’m enjoying the space and quiet now that they’re gone and savor it.

  6. K. Adonna says:

    As someone who lives alone, I appreciate this post. Thank you. Recently, I realized that wintertime is my hunker down, nesting, cooking time of year and as the weather gets warmer, it’s time to get out and about.

    • Jean says:

      Kim, I just took a look at your blog, and I’m excited by your “living alone” series. I have lived alone for almost 40 years, and I can’t imagine giving it up. But when I was working, winter was a busy teaching time, with intense interactions with both students and colleagues as part of my away-from-home life. Time alone at home was a welcome opportunity for personal renewal. While I still love being alone, the lack of any built-in interaction this year has made it feel different.
      Thanks for commenting here and calling your blog to my attention.

      • K. Adonna says:

        I’m delighted that you checked out my blog — thank you! I do hope you’ll consider contributing to the discussion at some point? I think I know what you mean about the lack of built-in interactions. (I have summers off from teaching.) How exciting that you can take as much time as you need to explore different ways to find that social/solitude balance!

  7. Honey Bee says:

    I’m enjoying this topic immensely. As a recent widow, and still suffering from lingering fatigue from cancer treatments, I know it is important for me to be intentional about getting social contact. Susan Pinker’s book, The Village Effect, underlined the importance of being connected for optimim health, well-being, and longevity.

    I am not up to hosting friends, but I do enjoy going out for coffee or a meal with them. I try to go out daily, even if it’s only to Starbucks. I now know all the staff at my local Starbucks, and they know me. “You gotta go where everyone knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

    At Starbucks I enjoy being out among people, but still savoring solitude as I read or journal or write letters there. I have even met some of the other “regulars” and had great conversations with them.

    That’s just enough interaction to brighten my days. Just short conversations with the people I see regularly — in keeping appointments, visiting the library, doing my errands — bring me great joy. Even shopping is a social event for me.

    I try to say “yes” to invitations that will nourish my well being. Concerts, museums, sports events, lectures, mini courses.

    I also plan outings (weekend getaways and day trips) and take adventures on my own.

    This winter I took a Western Caribbean Cruise that helped to eliminate some of the colder days for me. I was away for fourteen days in total, in late January and early February, as part of the tour included three days of bus travel each way, going to and coming from Florida. There was plenty of social interaction, or not, as desired. I met wonderful people both on my bus and on the ship.

    I have discovered that connections are vital for me, so I make sure that they happen. I have also attended a number of Senior’s luncheons with four different groups.

    But I also pace myself, because my energy is limited. This week’s calendar has a class on Wednesday at the hospital on “Writing to Heal”, a program and luncheon with a group on Thursday in a nearby city, lunch with a friend on Friday, and a concert on Saturday.

    Being newly retired, I am still exploring options, and discovering what works and what doesn’t, so I find it interesting to learn what others have found helpful.

    Thanks for writing and for all the great tips that surface here.

    Spring is almost here!
    Honey Bee

    • Jean says:

      Honey Bee, Thank you so much for sharing your strategies for social connection. Last week, I accepted an invitation from a market research firm to participate in a focus group about state political issues and I enjoyed it enormously. The people in the room were all thoughtful and engaging, and it was a kind of intellectually stimulating discussion that I used to take for granted during my teaching days. I’ve signed up for a senior college course that runs for 6 weeks beginning at the end of March, and that will provide another source of intellectually stimulating connection with others.
      Slowly I’m finding my way, but I still need to think more about strategies for the heart of winter when it is difficult to get out.

  8. […] I don’t have the problem of friendships that were based primarily in the workplace; because I divided my time between Gettysburg (where my job was located) and Maine, I was away from co-workers whenever we had breaks from school and too busy for much socializing when school was in session. But I do live alone, and my love of solitude (see Retirement Preview: The Temptation to Be a Hermit), combined with a certain level of social insecurity about initiating invitations makes social isolation a real risk for me. I experienced some problems with social isolation during my first year of retirement. The long period when my house was under construction kept me from inviting people over, and last year’s harsh winter often made it difficult to get out (see Cabin Fever and Social Isolation). […]

  9. […] My emotional well-being depends in part on getting the right balance between solitude and social relationships. As a solitary type who lives alone, this is my greatest challenge in retirement. My experience of social isolation during last year’s harsh winter helped me to realize that my previous target of scheduling one meaningful social interaction per week was not enough (see Cabin Fever and Social Isolation). […]

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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