Retirees living in senior living centers have become radio DJs for an online radio show called Radio Recliner. The program is designed to help those who have to stay isolated because of the ongoing pandemic. (May 11)

AP Domestic

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. 


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“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.

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