By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Candy Boucher’s heart ached when she read an anonymous prayer intention this past spring in which a youth described feeling alone and longing for others to know “who I really am.” Boucher,
coordinator of adult faith formation at St. Ann Parish in Long Grove, asked daily Mass-goers that morning to include the youth’s prayer intention as they prayed the rosary. It was one among the many prayer intentions submitted as part of a parish prayer chain project.
Boucher shared the prayer intention with Youth Minister Julia Jones who had collected prayer intentions in a basket the night before during the youth group meeting. The following week, Jones read the prayer intention during the youth group meeting and said, “I don’t know who wrote this, but I want to let you know you are not alone … we are praying for you.” Along with prayer, she strives to invite youths to a variety of activities and service projects to build community.
The youth is not alone in experiencing loneliness, which has become so pervasive that the U.S. surgeon general published an advisory in May. Its title is “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community.”
“My clients who struggle with mental health symptoms often report loneliness as an experience and a struggle in which to find their way out of,” says Margy Hendershott of Hendershott Counseling & Consulting in Bettendorf. “As practitioners and as individuals in society, we can all agree that as a people, we are generally feeling more isolated and lonely. There are many suspected culprits of increased loneliness in recent times, including effects of the pandemic, increased working from home, and the impact of technology and social media,” said Hendershott, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport.
Social isolation and the experience of feeling lonely are manifested in increased mental health symptoms consistent with diagnoses of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, increase in substance use disorders, eating disorders and others,” she added.
While loneliness and isolation existed before the pandemic, as the advisory states, “the pandemic brought it to the forefront,” says Deacon Dan Freeman, who has witnessed its effects personally
and professionally. Case in point: his mother, who was in a nursing home and died during the pandemic, could not receive in-person visits from her loved ones. “I wasn’t able to see her that last six months. I think that (the lack of in-person contact with family) exacerbated the situation,” Deacon Freeman said. The COVID-related limitations on gatherings meant that only a small number of immediate family members could mourn her loss together. Extended family and friends are a crucial component of the healing process for grieving loved ones, he said.
Deacon Freeman also became more aware of the detrimental effects of a lack of physical touch during a conversation with a fellow classmate from diaconal studies, Deacon Mike
Snyder, who is now preparing for the priesthood. Deacon Snyder became the hands and feet of his late wife, Patty, during her battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Physical touch was a constant in his role as her primary caregiver, bathing and dressing her and moving her from her wheel chair. After she died Dec. 31, 2018, he felt the lack of physical touch acutely. “I think that slowed down my grieving process.”
Four months after Patty’s death, a woman approached him after Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf, where he served as a deacon, and gave him a big hug. “It felt so good,” he said. “There is something about physical touch that our body responds to.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, “Many of us are not hugging, shaking hands, patting on the back, etc., as much as we were previously used to,” Hendershott said. “Studies have shown a strong correlation of babies diagnosed with failure to thrive and absence of physical touch, which is associated with slowing of weight gain, growth and development and medical problems. We know that physical touch is very important to health and happiness to people of all ages. Remember to extend a hug, handshake, pat on the back to those you are close to or familiar with.”
Remember to visit, too, advises Terry Martz, a member of St. Mary Parish in Wilton who visits residents of the Wilton Retirement Community, among other volunteer activities. The loneliness advisory points out the power of community: “Social connection is an important social determinant of health, and more broadly, of community well-being, including (but not limited to) population health, community resilience when natural hazards strike, community safety, economic prosperity, and representative government.”
Prior to the pandemic, while volunteering at the retirement community, Martz attended a tenants’ meeting where she learned that residents “felt like they weren’t part of the greater community anymore.” Their perceived loss of community connection galvanized Martz and others to visit the residents and to offer transportation to Mass and social activities.
Connection to the community is crucial to addressing loneliness, the advisory reports. St. Mary Parish is striving to enhance the community/faith community connection through the efforts of Martz and other volunteers she recruits. The nursing home and assisted living residents need to know that they are a valued part of the community, Martz said.
Some people are still afraid to go out into the public, and not just older people, said Deacon John Wagner, parish nurse at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport. While the fears are lessening over time, some of the “older people in my parish are not back at Mass. They are missing their community. People with health issues — physical and/or mental — are feeling loneliness and isolation as never before,” added Wagner, a retired psychiatric nurse. “They need people to visit, to make contact.”
Our Lady of Victory, like many parishes in the diocese, encourages parishioners to be part of a small group within the parish — Bible study, grief support, single/ divorced support group — to help build the faith community connection. “All of us (ministers and laity) have an obligation, through our baptism, to seek out people who are lonely. Look around you. Who do you know is isolated? Try to include them. We are asked to visit the sick, the imprisoned. Somebody might be in jail, but in a jail of their making,” Deacon Wagner said.
“Human beings are inherently social beings; relationships with each other and active participation in society are essential aspects of human nature,” says Bishop William Joensen of the Des Moines Diocese in the first of a two-part column on loneliness. And, “belonging to a community of faith with diverse members is one of the more salutary factors contributing to human health and well-being” (The Catholic Mirror, June 16, 2023).
People struggling with reengaging socially even though they know it would be good for them, should seek counseling to receive support in working toward reestablishing social
connections, repairing relationships or building new ones, Hendershott says. “Reinstate traditions of get-togethers, go to events that you used to go to and have gotten out of the habit of going to, and set goals to talk to a few people at events, even though it might be uncomfortable. It is important to reestablish these skills and habits to begin feeling more connected, thus decreasing experiencing loneliness.”
She advises all of the faithful to “reach out to your friends and family to connect with them, with no agenda other than to say ‘I was thinking of you, praying for you, and want to see how you are doing.’ Do not offer solutions to people who share struggles. Rather, listen to them, tell them they are not alone and that you care about them.”