Quarantining alone: Metro Detroiters struggle with 'ups and downs' of isolation

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Twice a day, Margaret Neumann of Waterford does meditation to focus her mind and ease her anxieties.

Neumann started transcendental meditation after her husband Phil died three years ago, but it's been especially helpful as she isolates herself during the COVID-19 crisis. Everything she used to do — volunteering at a local senior center, visiting a local meditation facility, lunch with friends — is on hold, and it's just Neumann and her beloved cats.

Margaret Neumann looks out her bedroom window in her Waterford home where she has been riding out the COVID-19 quarantine alone.

"They're great company," said Newman, 73, who also practices yoga. But it's the meditation "that has really helped me through. It's a stress-reliever."

Across Metro Detroit, single people like Newman who are alone during the novel coronavirus pandemic face a different set of challenges to stay connected with others and maintain an emotional balance during this uncertain time.

Experts say anyone can experience a degree of loneliness, but it's important for those who are alone to reach out to loved ones, maintain a schedule if they can and find ways to fill their days. And for those who are really struggling, seek help, counselors say. 

"By nature, human beings aren’t meant to be alone," said Debbie Valendingham, a social worker with Angela Hospice in Livonia that has launched a series of videos called “Closing the Distance” during the pandemic. "Throughout history, we’ve survived by banding together, forming civilizations. The thought of staying separate is counter-intuitive. It feels uncomfortable."

Clara Balmer, 30, of Ypsilanti has been alone since mid-March. Balmer, who has an autoimmune condition for which she takes an immunosuppressant, left her job as a nanny at the same time to better safeguard her health from the virus.

Balmer, a self-described extrovert, likens isolating to being on a desert island. Even with your favorite books and a food pantry, it's still really difficult, she said.

"It’s been a  lot of ups and downs as I try to process the emotions," said Balmer, who like Neumann, has also taken up meditation to manage her anxiety during the quarantine and plays instruments such as a ukulele. "This is hard. I’ll have three days where I feel pretty good — maybe — and there’s this temptation to feel really productive and use that time wisely and then I’ll wake up depressed."

In southeast Michigan, there are more than 560,000 households in which people live alone — 350,000 are under the age of 65 and 213,000 are older than 65, based on 2018 census data.

Margaret Newman of Waterford reads a book from the living room in her Waterford home where she has been riding out the COVID-19 quarantine alone, Tuesday, April 21, 2020.

Nationally, about 28% of older adults in the United States, or 13.8 million people, live alone, according to a report by the Administration for Community Living’s Administration on Aging of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

But experts say there's a difference between being alone and loneliness, though this pandemic has challenged those who live alone but still have active social lives. Research has found that social isolation and loneliness are linked to a range of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

James Blundo, a licensed professional counselor in Rochester Hills, said people are alone for a variety of reasons — divorce, the death of a spouse, by choice — and everybody is experiencing loneliness right now. He said the most important thing people can do is have hope and compassion — for themselves.

"It’s easier to be alone if you’re more accepting of yourself than if you’re down on yourself," said Blundo, president of the Michigan Mental Health Counselors Association.

Margaret Neumann of Waterford shows off a custom birdhouse on her enclosed back porch as she is riding out the COVID-19 quarantine alone on Tuesday, April 21, 2020.

A new normal

For many Metro Detroiters who are alone, one of the hardest parts has been letting go of old routines and settling into what feels like a new normal.

Julie Nagle of Clawson, 59, said she's been making a conscious effort to force herself to call at least two people a day. And every day during her morning coffee, Nagle, who has a daughter in California and many relatives in the Metro Detroit area, writes out a to-do list for the day and says a prayer.

"For me, since I’m single, I’m used to doing my own stuff," said Nagle, who has a dog, Lily, and is working from home as a merchandising buyer for Gardner-White Furniture. "For me, (the hard part) was creating a new routine and getting motivated."

Nagle said one of the biggest challenges has been adapting her fitness routine. She used to go to a boot camp at Lifetime Fitness in Bloomfield Township three days a week  but had to find new ways to stay motivated. Now, she does a workout and then calls her boot camp instructor to remain accountable. And she also likes to walk or bike.

"Change, good or bad, is hard," said Nagle.

Emily DeMeester, a social worker and the Community Living Programs Clinical Manager for the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, which provides services to seniors across Metro Detroit, said it's important for those self-isolating to keep a regular routine. 

"Make sure you’re sleeping regular and schedule your meals," said DeMeester. "You can have a tendency to overeat during this time. And exercise is important."

And social connection is so important, whether it's through social media, calling or video-calling loved ones, said DeMeester. She said there are online support groups and virtual book clubs.

Margaret Neumann works on a project on her enclosed back porch as she is riding out the COVID-19 quarantine alone in her Waterford home.

"Think of it not as social distancing but physical distancing," said DeMeester. "We want people to connect."

Neumann of Waterford said she's learned to text during this pandemic and she's also emailing friends. Nagle, meanwhile, taught her 83-year-old mother, Loretta, to use FaceTime and encouraged all the grandchildren to regularly reach out to her.

"You have friends far and near and it’s good to keep in contact," said Neumann.

Still, Blundo, the Rochester Hills counselor, worries about the pandemic's aftermath. He's trying to get a mental health hotline started and has reached out to state officials to make it happen. The Area Agency on Aging 1-B, meanwhile, does have a hotline — (800) 852-7795 — for those 60 and older and adults over 18 with a disability who need help finding services. 

"I don't care how healthy you are, this impacts all of us — the anxiety, fear and depression," said Blundo. "Nobody is fine... (But) human beings are very resilient. Nobody is doomed. I’m not a believer in that."

Still, "we’ll have to face a different way of doing things," he said.