In the early days of her quarantine, Ema Martinez maintained a routine: for 15 minutes each day, she would throw herself a “pity party” and weep.
Living alone in her home in Lubbock, Texas, Martinez used to watch her 3-year-old grandson, Hendrix, so often that he has his own bedroom for overnight visits. But after Martinez, who suffers from chronic leukemia, decided she had to quarantine alone to protect herself from the coronavirus, the room sat empty and silent.
“I’d sit for 15 minutes and cry because I missed my grandson and I was convinced I was never going to see him again,” she said. “And then I’d move on.”
As cities and states slowly re-open their economies and ease back on social distancing regulations, many Americans are skipping the rush back to restaurants and gyms and choosing to stay home instead, their isolation now stretching into a third month. They’re doing so because they are elderly, medically vulnerable, skeptical of their local government’s re-opening plans or just too afraid to venture back out into society.
For those quarantining alone, that means even more time spent pacing around their homes. They’re devising new ways to entertain themselves and trying anything to ward off the depression that invariably bubbles up.
Martinez, 58, an administrative assistant who is working part-time from home, has gotten creative. She’s returned to her craft projects, installed a faux brick wallpaper in her living room and researched on YouTube how to redo her kitchen floor.
And she’s figured out an unorthodox way of suppressing her creeping depression: sad movies.
“I hadn’t watched ‘Terms of Endearment.’ I cried so hard during that,” Martinez said. “That was really cathartic.”
But Martinez and others like her say those moments can be hard to come by as the weeks pile up. That has experts worried about the collective toll of all that loneliness.
‘We are not meant to be alone’
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says its been long established that loneliness can lead to a wide variety of mental — and even physical — ailments that can cut short people’s lives. She and others have shown how long-term loneliness can lead to cognitive decline, speed up dementia, increase blood pressure, weaken immune functionality and increase inflammation, culminating in earlier deaths.
Part of the reason is that humans are hard-wired to be around other humans. From the moment of birth, humans are one of the most vulnerable species on the planet, completely dependent on adults for survival. That dependency carries through into adulthood, when the brain is so accustomed to being enveloped by a social network that it goes into a state of alert when nobody else is around.
“We are not meant to be alone,” said Holt-Lunstad, who has joined a team of international researchers to study how quickly the forced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people. “That state of alert, if it is prolonged, puts wear and tear on our bodies. The reason it feels unpleasant is it’s a biological signal, much like hunger and thirst, to motivate us to reconnect with others.”
Millions were already living alone before the pandemic started, with AARP estimating that more than 8 million Americans age 50 and older are affected by isolation. Holt-Lunstad’s research indicates that over a quarter of all Americans live alone.
For some, like Edward Watson, it took a while before the isolation really started to hit.
A self-described introvert, Watson moved from Florida to a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeastern Georgia four years ago to find a more tranquil setting to enjoy his retirement.
He has no TV, he shut down his social media accounts years ago, and he has few friends in his new home of Toccoa, Georgia. Pre-COVID, he would occasionally visit a thrift store, sit down for a burger at the country club, go to the gym or visit the city clerk’s office to pay his utilities bill in person. Now, he works on his garden, reads his books, renovates his house and tries out new cooking recipes — his latest experiments are with Middle Eastern dishes.
But even for Watson, 54, the near-total shutdown has drained him. He can’t go visit his parents or his grandmother in Florida, terrified he will contract the coronavirus and pass it to them. His thrift stores are closed, the flea market is shut down. And most of the storefronts that encompasses Toccoa’s tiny downtown are closed up.
“It has a dystopian feel about it,” he said.
The stay-at-home orders came at a particularly hard time for J. Denise Kulick.
The retired grandmother lives alone in a 600-square-foot home near Harveys Lake in rural Pennsylvania, and she had just endured a long, cold winter that forced her to stay inside most days. She’s losing her eyesight, meaning she can’t walk more than a quarter mile without worrying about her safety. And the new safety regulations meant her already limited ventures out into society become even rarer.
“It compounded my isolation,” Kulick said.
For Martinez, the grandmother in Texas, her first attempts to Skype with her grandson showed how difficult the quarantine would be. He would approach the screen, then quickly lose interest and run off.
“He would get on there and smile at me and wave at me, but only for a few seconds,” she said. “I ended up just talking with my daughter.”
Finding reasons for hope
One by one, and in their own ways, Martinez, Watson and Kulick have found ways to battle their extreme isolation.
Watson did so by remembering why he moved to the country in the first place.
On May 10, he got into his truck — a 2004 Nissan Frontier with 179,000 miles that he calls “Maryellen” — and drove up into the mountains. He stopped for a Cuban sandwich in a mountain town, took winding roads he hadn’t taken before. After crossing into North Carolina, he found what he was looking for: an idyllic bend in the Cullasaja River that called to him.
“I walked down the embankment, took my clothes off and swam,” he said. “Just hearing the roar of the waterfall, I was bouncing between some of the rocks. That’s what I needed, that spiritual swim in that gorgeous setting.
“That lifted my spirits.”
Kulick thought of her grandmother who lost her first husband (Kulick’s grandfather) to a flu epidemic in 1907. Then her house burned down. Then she lost her second husband to another flu epidemic in the 1910s. But somehow, the Polish immigrant who only spoke a few words of English managed to raise nine children and one stepson in a one-bathroom apartment in Kingston, Pennsylvania.
“She’s my hero,” Kulick said. “When I go through difficult times, I think about her. Who am I to complain when you look at what she went through?”
Kulick’s second solution has been her writing. The 77-year-old has been working on a book for eight years, even taking online classes at a local college to figure out how to structure a novel and improve her dialogue. Somehow, the added isolation of the pandemic proved the inspiration she needed to finish.
Kulick describes her book, called “The Chairs Are Jealous,” as a lighthearted cross between fantasy and mystery: “Beauty and the Beast” meets “The Maltese Falcon.”
“I had writer’s block all last year,” she said. “It took the pandemic to make me finally finish it.”
In Texas, Martinez realized she was running out of ways to keep herself sane. Then one day she read the story about the “murder hornets” that had arrived in Washington state and decided enough was enough. She needed to see her grandson.
After long talks with her daughter, little Hendrix came over and spent the weekend at her house.
“I told my daughter, ‘Things are just getting worse. What am I saving myself for? I want to be able to leave him some memories of me, and I don’t want those memories to be me hiding in my house,'” she said.
That reprieve will be a short one. Martinez’s son-in-law is a bartender, so he was preparing to go back to work over the weekend as Texas reopens its economy. That means he’ll be exposed to large groups of people every night, some wearing masks, some not.
For Martinez, that increases the chance of Hendrix getting the virus and then passing it on to her.
“I don’t think I’ll see Hendrix again,” she said.