Aging Alone in a Pandemic: Social Distancing and Social Isolation


March 17, 2020 by Jean

A few days ago (Was it really only a few days ago?) when Maine’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed, the head of the state CDC, Dr. Nirav Shah, advised us to “practice social distancing, but not social isolation.” As someone who lives alone, particularly as someone who is aging alone, I’m finding it challenging to follow that prescription. Normally, my greatest hedge against social isolation is organized forms of social engagement – my choral singing group, classes at the local Senior College, meetings of my Solo Seniors group and my retirees’ book group. All of those are now cancelled, and I’m finding that social distancing can quickly come to feel like solitary confinement.

Here are some strategies I’m using to keep social distancing from turning into social isolation:

  • Framing: It helps to put a positive spin on my time alone. I can remind myself that I’m a person who loves solitude and who normally has to work at getting enough time alone. I’m also looking at all those undone projects that I now have time to work on. Just before the pandemic, one of my friends had been thinking about carving out a week or two without social engagements as a solitary “retreat,” but she was finding it nearly impossible to clear her social calendar. “Now,” she says, “I’m having my retreat.”
  • Getting out of the house: Because I live in a rural area, I can easily spend time alone outside. An early spring this year means that I can get outside on nice days to work in the garden or to go for a walk. Now that I’m spending most of my time at home, time out driving around to do errands also feels like a treat.
  • Treating some days like a “staycation”: It’s fine to take a day once a week for pure indulgence. I can make a pot of tea, put up my feet, and read a novel. I can spend an evening binge-watching episodes of Cagney and Lacey, the Midsomer Murders, or Murdoch Mysteries.
  • Using telecommunications technology to stay engaged with others: Email, telephone, and social media are all ways to stay connected with others. I’ve noticed more sharing of pandemic humor and messages of support on Facebook. One of my choral singing friends responded to my concerns about social isolation by sending me a long email message about her daily goings-on. I spent two mornings this week in a virtual classroom, taking a Senior College course about how to use the video conferencing app, ZOOM. I was surprised by how engaging this was. We could all see and hear one another and could converse. In addition to learning the software, I got to catch up with friends that I would normally see at Senior College events. As part of the course, I got myself signed up for a free Zoom account, and I’m planning to invite my Solo Seniors group to a virtual meeting next week as a substitute for our usual in-person monthly meeting. I’m also thinking of hosting a “virtual open house” that I will invite about a dozen friends to – a chance for people to socialize and chat.
  • Allowing myself a few carefully choreographed in-person social engagements: Before the pandemic was declared, I had lunch dates planned with two different friends whom I haven’t seen in months. (Both of these friends also live alone.) In both cases, we have decided to keep our lunch date, but to eat in instead of going to a restaurant. One friend will come to my house for lunch later this week. I will make the lunch, and she will bring dessert. The other friend and I are going to meet for a brown-bag lunch next week at the vacant house of a friend who had to move into a nursing home several months ago. I need to spend time at the sick friend’s house getting it ready to be put on the market, and this is a way to combine that challenging task with some pleasure. I should note that a number of public health sources have advised against having people over to your house. I’ve talked this over with both my friends and we’ve decided to risk it. I will set the lunch table so that we are six feet apart while eating, and I will use disinfectant cleaner on commonly touched surfaces at the entrance to the house, in the bathroom, and in the kitchen both before my friends arrive and after they leave.


I would be interested in hearing from others about how you are practicing social distancing while avoiding social isolation.

30 thoughts on “Aging Alone in a Pandemic: Social Distancing and Social Isolation

  1. Salander says:

    As a person with severe hearing loss this social distancing is the norm for me and personally I do quite well with that. But when people talk about being part of a chorus or a book clubs or these kind of activities, well, I haven’t been able to join those for at least seven years. I have no problem with that concept. I meet people one on one, use technology, garden, walk 5 miles a day, so all that social distancing and people having issues with it is quite strange to me. As an only child I grew up independent and enjoy the solitude that life has presented to me. I have no disability when there’s no one else around

  2. Charles Emmons says:

    Jean, we again seem to like the same stuff! I was surprised (shouldn’t have been) to see that you like Midsomer Murders and Murdoch Mysteries (2 of my faves). Let me suggest Agatha Raisin, and The Vicar of Dibley (both about interestingly outrageous women in the UK). And Penelope and I are just now reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things” (about botany), very interesting yarn. Now that you have more time.

    • Jean says:

      Charlie, I’ve watched the Vicar of Dibley and enjoyed it. I’ve never watched the Agatha Raisin episodes because I tried one of the books once and didn’t like it. Maybe I should give the TV version a look.

  3. Sue McPhee says:

    Jean, you have always been upbeat, positive and resourceful… always able to make lemonade out of lemons. 🙂 The way you are handing this is truly commendable. I enjoy some alone time but I am coming to find that I already miss being able to help my clients feel better.. to de-stress.. to have less achy muscles and stiff joints. I have been doing some long-ignored household chores and some paperwork that needs catching up on, both of which I hate with a passion. LOL. I enjoy posting funnies on Facebook and bolstering folks with uplifting and positive comments.
    It’s impossible to offer massage therapy from 6 feet away, therefore I have temporarily closed my office for at east 2 – 3 weeks, possibly longer.
    I will be chomping at the bit to get back to work.
    The lesson: Now I know for sure: I NEVER want to retire! 🙂

    • Jean says:

      Sue, I can see why massage is not something that can be done long-distance. 😉 I’m afraid we may be in this for a longer haul than people have appreciated. “Flattening the curve” so that the health care system does not become overwhelmed means that fewer people die, but that the epidemic lasts longer. It’s probably more realistic to think in terms of months, rather than weeks, of social distancing.

  4. Andrea says:

    I am not nearly as socially engaged as you are, but I appreciate your tips. I do live alone, and I’m doing my share of isolating. It does feel challenging to me, and I’m rather surprised because I usually do things by myself when I feel like it. I am immune compromised and with that fact I am often fatigued. However, I really did want to refinance my home to do some much needed updating. Tomorrow the appraiser will be here, and of course, it is someone I don’t know. At another time I wouldn’t hesitate, but now I am wondering if that’s such a good idea.

    To answer your question about how I have been spending my time…it’s all about spring cleaning and making my home as presentable as possible. Closets and drawers have occupied a considerable bit of time. Additionally deep cleaning…yes, the ladder is out, and really cleaning that takes effort.

    I do appreciate your posts even though I don’t usually comment.

    • Jean says:

      Andrea, Thanks for leaving a comment. Having a project that really needs doing is one way to take advantage of the forced time alone. I have a feeling my spring gardening chores are going to get done much more quickly and thoroughly than they usually do. 🙂

  5. Jean R. says:

    Social distancing sure has us all appreciating the simpler things in our lives more, I think. As least our lives before the pandemic took over all the conversations.

    I wish telecommunications would work for my Gathering Girls pals, but when I suggested I could set up a private Facebook page so we do virtual lunches, 4 or the 7 of us didn’t think they’d be able to figure out how use FB, which I should have seen coming since they aren’t all that good at e-mail. So we’re going to try a good old fashioned telephone circle every Monday to keep in touch.

    Stay safe!

    • Sue McPhee says:

      Appreciating the simpler things.. yes .. that is the order of the day. And that is a good thing. Perhaps it will end up changing how we conduct ourselves in this hectic and crazy world.
      I know I look at things differently now, and it’s only been a few days since the stricter mandates have been put forth.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, A simple old-fashioned telephone circle seems like a good solution for your technologically-challenged group. I have a feeling that social distancing is going to be a little easier for those of us who are comfortable with electronic technology — but only to the extent that the people we want to interact with are also comfortable with it.

  6. GARY says:

    It’s strange Jean. My wife is disabled and I’m a solitary retiree by nature, a gardener and cyclist, but the psychology of this epidemic has made us feel isolated even though we are normally. You’re right, we are heading on a road trip to pick up some essentials and it feels like a treat. I am a veteran, 30 years, and this is a war unlike anything our country has seen since World War 2. We’ll get through this. I feel your plan with your friends is a little risky, but you are smart and are taking the right precautions. I would not be afraid to make sure your friends are as diligent with their social and health habits as you need. Be well, we need your blog.

    • Jean says:

      Gary, I’ve decided that imposed solitude just feels more constraining than solitude we choose. You’re right that my plans for lunch with my friends are a little risky, but I think it’s a risk we can manage. I just don’t know how many weeks without any in-person interaction with another human being my sanity can withstand, so it’s a balancing act. I like Jean’s (above) idea for a virtual lunch, and I may suggest that for my book group next month. My fear is less about getting sick (I’m in very good health for a seventy-something) than about inadvertently being a spreader.

      • Diana Studer says:

        Austrian garden blogger says she still chats to her neighbours, each behind their garden fence. With the road in between.

        How is your German coming on?

        • Jean says:

          Diana, Maybe I can get my next door neighbor to come out and visit with me from the other side of strip of woods between our houses.
          I managed to complete the Newcomer 1, Newcomer 2, and Beginner 1 levels of German courses on Babbel. Although I am certainly not conversational in German or even able to read it at this point, I did achieve my goal of feeling comfortable with the German text in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Alas, my motivation for learning German suffered a significant blow when our concert was cancelled. I could go on the the Beginner 2 level, but I think I may prefer to use the rest of my one-year Babbel subscription by improving my French or learning some Spanish.

      • Sue McPhee says:

        I hear you loud and clear about going without in-person interaction. I’m used to seeing at least 4 clients a day, 5 days a week, for at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half each. As I’ve temporarily closed my office in the interest of public safety, it feels like I’m on a starvation diet! LOL But, as you, I am more fearful of being a spreader, especially since my husband is in an essential job that exposes him to hundreds of people on a daily basis. I pray that he does not become a “carrier.”

        • GARY says:

          I’ll be short here. This is all crazy. Something we’ve all heard about, (Pandemics), but like the death of a grandparent, when it happens, we’re still stunned. Hang in there everyone. We’ll get through this.

      • Jean says:

        Gary, In the end, I decided to cancel my lunch dates with friends. When I took my temperature this morning (as I’ve been doing each day), it was slightly elevated, and I decided that was a message from the universe that the stakes are too high to take even small managed risks.

      • GARY says:

        Tough, but wise choice Jean. Hopefully you just had normal body temperature spike. We will be thinking of you. If things get tough, let me know.My wife and I live in Gorham and maybe a porch delivery or something if you get quarantined. Be well. Gary

        • Jean says:

          Gary, I had no idea you were so close by. Maybe when all this craziness is over, we can meet up.

        • GARY says:

          Yes, that would be nice. I found your gardening blog years ago, (avid gardener and native plant enthusiast who found your blog and then also found out you had a retirement blog).
          Be well!

  7. A great strategy to combat feeling Isolated. As a Full Time Caregiver of more than a couple of Decades, I found that the Social Isolation part of it was the most challenging for me. So this Pandemic has had some parallels to what a lot of Caregivers have been struggling with anyway and adapting to, so perhaps I had an edge on Sheltering In Place. That said, restricted Freedom is ALWAYS tough and Humans were meant to be Social Beings, so it’s not innately our Nature to Isolate, unless we have other Issues going on that make Socializing difficult. Living alone is not something I’ve had to do for so long now I can’t recall how I handled it, except that I was Young and had a large Network of Friends who probably came over often so I wasn’t Lonely, just living Alone at the time. Be Well and Stay Safe and Home as much as possible.

    • Jean says:

      Dawn, Yes; caregivers are a group at particularly high risk of social isolation in ordinary times, and the risk must be even greater now. It helps me that I am an introvert by nature and need to punctuate periods of sociability with longer periods of solitude. One of my extravert friends is finding this much more difficult than I am.

  8. puppy1952 says:

    Jean you really are an inspiration. Here in South Africa we are on total lockdown. We are only allowed out to seek medical attention or to buy food. I am lucky enough to live in a house with a garden and I have my husband and daughter with me. It’s going well for us. My daughter is working online and my hyper-active husband is setting himself different tasks to complete each day. Midsomer Murders and Murdoch Mysteries are my favourites too! I haven’t seen an episode of Cagney and Lacey for years but used to love that series too.

    • Jean says:

      Puppy, I’m glad we are not on total lockdown here. If it comes, having a garden that I can be outside in will make a big difference. I know someone who lives in a New York City apartment of less than 300 sq. feet and is finding it challenging to spend much more time inside than he normally would.
      Regarding Cagney and Lacey, I had kind of forgotten about the show (which I was addicted to in the 80s) until I saw the reruns available on the Roku channel. Since I think the real focus of the show was the relationships among the characters, and especially the friendship between the two women, it has held up well. I am very much enjoying getting reacquainted with those characters.

  9. Susan says:

    Dear Jean,
    I’m a little behind on your posts (which I love!), and decided to go back and read some more. It’s funny about the feelings we have when the isolation is imposed as opposed to chosen. I think I do a lot better with solitude than a lot of people, but I’ve found this one challenging too! One of the best things to come out of this was that my 81-year-old mom FINALLY agreed to TRY Zoom—and yesterday (Mother’s Day), I got to see her sweet face for the first time in almost a year!! (I’m on sabbatical researching Civil Rights museums in Alabama for six months, and I was looking forward to visiting her in Arkansas for her birthday in March, but that didn’t happen.) Another good thing is that little things i used to take for granted are a real treat now—taking a walk, even going out to the mailbox, talking with friends. I’m risking it this week to get a massage—Alabama is opening up salons and that sort of thing this week. It’s probably not the wisest decision, but I’m really really looking forward to it!! (I’m loving the weather here! One of my best memories of you is how once September rolled around, I’d pull out my big LONG HEAVY coat, and you’d be flitting around in your little vest–and we’d laugh at each other!) : )

    • Jean says:

      I’m glad to hear you’re doing well in Alabama, Susan. Your story about our very different perceptions of what “cold” weather meant reminded me of a time Marta Robertson and I came out of a meeting about 5:30 p.m. on a weirdly warm evening the week before Thanksgiving. As we stepped out into the balmy air, Marta took a deep breath and said blissfully, “Ah, Thanksgiving weather!”

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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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