When Nickels and Dimes Mattered

Isolation is exhausting. More exhausting than actually engaging or doing something. I find myself repeatedly refreshing a browser and pulling up some other website that might have information about what’s happening around me, around the area, around the nation. Illogical I know.  Nothing imminently relevant to me is happening in any of those places yet the hours-alone silence, podcasts notwithstanding, results in my wondering aloud and wandering mind. 

Someone’s got to be doing something that’ll change how I feel/what I’m doing/what I care about/who I know/where I am/…….right now! I’m sure of it! Isn’t that what people do all day?! Things that impact me right now! Issues, policies, decisions, weather, traffic, markets, holidays….   Wait…..my phone buzzed with a text. Grab it right now–it must be critical! Nope, just the notice from the power company that the monthly bill is ready to pay. At least someone remembered I’m here. 

All these things are happening out there yet I sit alone (notwithstanding my two dogs) grasping for some piece of any of it. Reaching to be out there while confined in here. I do feel lonely. I do feel disconnected. I do feel unimportant. I do feel unnecessary. I do feel forgotten. I do feel lesser. Mind you for me any one or a combination of these lasts about five minutes then I pick up one of the many books, games, or cards I’ve received in the past couple of weeks reminding me this is all a temporary gig. Or I crutch over to my (thanks to my most-excellent caregiver) fully-stocked kitchenette and weigh out a snack of dried fruit (yes, I’m tracking a self-imposed diet until I’m able to actually burn some of my daily caloric intake) and boil water for a cup of tea.   I’m fortunate as well as grateful. I may also be a minority among those who feel this way. 

Extensive studies have been conducted in the fields related to social isolation, disability and aging. While many of them admit limitations due to the nature of the studies themselves–they are largely self-reported–I’ll go out on a limb and say I’d likely support many of them that reach conclusions related to the negative health impacts. Negative health of the mind and body certainly permeate most sections of any serious study concerning adverse impacts of isolation. Stir in a few helpings of social media, add in a pinch of general public policy disregard and finally sprinkle on top a bit of healthcare policy rejection and a more toxic recipe I cannot imagine.  With an end in sight it’s easy for me to dip a toe into the rabbit hole of this almost epidemic and it’s not taken me too long to move beyond just a single toe. I’ve stumbled into countless related studies, papers and opinion pieces and its made me regretful, tearful and modestly hopeful at once.

I’ve thought of a variety of elderly customers of mine when I was door-to-door delivering newspapers decades ago. I can recall several of their faces, doorways and living rooms if not many of their names. While not a religious person I owe a great deal of my childhood manners to  the structure and expectations placed upon us by my childhood church. I recall racing between several houses because I knew a handful of them would take minutes longer than they should—–their widow occupants waited for me each day in hopes of greeting me at the door and engaging in a couple minutes of conversation. I was 10-12-13; what on earth did I have to converse about with a bunch of blue-hair widows?!?!?! Yet there I was, standing in their porch or sometimes in the edge of their living rooms talking about my bike, the weather, my family or theirs. Day after day after day it seemed at least a couple of them timed my delivery perfect. Isolated. I didn’t realize at the time—I didn’t realize anything at the time, I was eleven!–all they were looking for was someone from the outside world to spend a few minutes engaging with them.  

I became emotionally moved (is that a thing for a twelve year old?) to a few of them. After all I had the same route for four-five years and it was entire accessible by bike so I knew every inch of every road and every lawn and every house in that section of town. I recall once or twice a year the price of the paper would increase and at that time it was up to us carriers to notify and pass that on to each customer. One lady in particular–she had a small screened porch filled with trinkets and an endless supply of potted plants and flowers–seemed to struggle each week to pay. We had these little payment coupon books we’d tear out a tag every two week as the receipt or proof of payment once the customer paid. Most customers paid by envelope tucked away in their mailboxes or not-so-carefully-hidden in spots around their front porch. This customer paid in person and after an increase or two (this is decades ago so my memory is fuzzy) she started requesting a delay of several days in payment; that she’d be able to cover it once she had a little more time to come up with the funds. Of course I agreed. Of course I didn’t tell my district manager. Each time she was late I covered her payment out of my pocket so my bi-weekly totals balanced. Finally one increase was one too many for her.

As I recall these increases were in the range of a nickel or dime each week meaning a dime or two every two weeks. Again, I’m reaching for the memory. I stopped charging her the increase instead covering the different each payment period out of my profits. I never saw a visitor to her home, I never saw her leave in a car, I never saw anyone work on the outside of her home. I remember her tending to her porch garden as well as the tidy little yard she had out front. Her back yard was fenced so I cannot speak to how it was maintained. Isolated. To me it seemed as if she was all alone, aging and going broke in her little house just a couple blocks off Main Street. I couldn’t bring myself to keep delivering price increases to her as I saw no indication she had anyone else to help with the payment. Naturally, eventually she had to be told and I cannot remember how that occurred. I only remember thinking she was all alone with no-one to help. 

Other examples leap to mind with similar themes. I cannot imagine the volume of isolated individuals today. Young folks no longer deliver newspapers, churches may no longer deliver meal-on-wheels, youth continue their migration to larger towns and cities. Within those cities many people define themselves by how busy they are; I’d suspect that definition does not include regular or even sporadic visits to elderly or disabled who may toil away alone in their homes every day. Without any evidence I’d suspect isolationism does not have to include being completely alone. One can feel isolated or lonely even if another body or two is around the house. Annually in the U.S. the CDC reports upwards of 44,000 suicides. Annually in the U.S. the CDC reports upwards of 63,000 drug overdose deaths (some of those may overlap). I wonder how many of those may have been related to severe feelings of isolation. I wonder how many could have been prevented if health policy or social policy created more opportunities to address the widespread occurrences of isolation.