At the beginning of 2020, four friends and I started planning an overdue reunion. But just as we were narrowing down destinations, the pandemic hit. We moved our girls’ trip online, logged on, lounged and sipped for several hours via Zoom.
It’s no doubt the pandemic has impacted our relationships. Although we may enjoy opportunities to bond over pandemic-related experiences, the change of routine, distance and precautions have weakened many of our social ties. And even if we were intentional about maintaining connections, some of them may have fallen by the wayside. A study by AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation, for example, found an epidemic of social isolation. In fact, nearly 30 percent of women 50-plus reported no social interaction at all with anyone outside of the house or the workplace for up to three months.
Vaccines have come out and people are excited … but a year in hiding, cloistered away, has taken its toll.
Easing back into social life
We’ll need to expect and accept a bit of social awkwardness — pauses in conversation, intermittent eye contact, accidental cutoffs. Just as our bodies softened with the closing of gyms, our social muscles have atrophied. Extend grace to yourself and others. Robin Smith, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of the soon-to-be-reissued 2004 best seller Inspirational Vitamins: A Guide to Personal Empowerment, tells AARP that the pandemic is a form of trauma. As we first start getting back in the social swing of things, she encourages perseverance, adding, “We can't assume that how we were a year ago is how we'll be today."
Smith, who was therapist-in-residence on The Oprah Winfrey Show, calls it courageous to venture back into social interactions. "Vaccines have come out and people are excited … but a year in hiding, cloistered away, has taken its toll,” she told AARP contributing writer Jodi Helmer. “We need to be gentle with ourselves and with other people as we reenter” social interactions. Here are a few ideas.
Keep your Zoom meetups going
We’ve learned to conduct coffee breaks, happy hours, social events and holiday dinners virtually. It may still be a while before many of us are chatting with coworkers at the water cooler or resuming all previous social routines. So if physically hanging out isn’t possible (and even if it is), continue to use those new tools.
Suggest casual get-togethers
In-person or virtual? Outdoor or indoor? Group visit or one-on-one? A few hours or a few minutes? As you make plans, ask your friends about their comfort levels and acknowledge your own. Whether you’ll connect face-to-face or virtually, plan a time to go for a walk, meet for coffee or enjoy game night.
Consider starting with a one-off event
Aderonke O. Bamgbose Pederson, M.D., a psychiatrist and instructor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told AARP that quarantine-induced anxiety can alter our tolerance for social interaction. "There is going to be a temptation to try to snap right back into our normal routines,” she said. “We're not robots; we can't switch back with an on-off switch."
Start a group text
A simple “just thinking of all of you” can turn into ongoing communication. After our girls’ trip, we would check in on each other, send funny memes, celebrate birthdays and holidays and swap pics of our kids. We were there for each other through the low moments, too, sending virtual hugs during COVID-19 diagnoses, the loss of loved ones and cancer treatment.
Create a weekly “connection time”
How many times have you thought, Oh, I should reach out to so-and-so, but you never got around to it? One way to prioritize connecting your friends, neighbors and family is to put catch-ups on the calendar. It only takes a couple of minutes to send a text, pick up the phone or send a voice message!
Send a handwritten letter
Don’t you love seeing a pretty handwritten envelope tucked between junk mail and bills? Why not brighten a friend’s day? Consider searching for friendship quotes online and then adding your favorite one to a notecard. Have fun selecting pretty stationery and stamps.
Create a post-pandemic bucket list
List the things you’ve missed doing and the places you’ve missed going to, and invite a friend to join you. Knowing you're going to have a mani-pedi one week and visit a newly reopened cafe next week is a fun way to reenergize neglected relationships.
Plan a trip or event together
Studies have shown that the planning and anticipation of a vacation can be just as exciting (if not more) as the vacation itself. I’m looking forward to future girls’ trips!