Tag Archives: Memorial Day

Loneliness Affects Both Survivor & Caregiver

On this Memorial Day weekend when we remember and celebrate the contributions of the countless women and men who have died in service to this country, it’s also an important time to remember those who have survived, and the people who care for them.

A common refrain is that war changes people, and history has shown that when these people try to assimilate back into society after their service, they face isolation, disappointment, and depression, especially when dealing with a disability. A strong multidisciplinary network of medical professionals, social workers, community organizations, family and friends is required to help people through this journey. A network that sadly often breaks down and fails these individuals as evidenced by the increasing and alarming number of suicides among military service-people and veterans.

I don’t have much direct experience caring for current or ex-military, though I did help my dad, a Korean War veteran who passed away in June 2018, manage his later years and his interactions with the Veterans Administration. Dad was an amazingly outgoing and social person through most of his life until my mom died over a decade ago, his health started to fail and his financial situation became dire. He had much in common with others of his generation in his unwillingness to talk about his military experience or his childhood during the Depression and World War II. As he aged, he settled into a disturbingly isolated existence despite the efforts of myself and my sister to keep him active, but he appeared comfortable with this as if he had decided he had done enough during his life and felt it time to simply watch sports, sleep, and eat.

In one of my caregiver support groups, I often hear caregivers lamenting that their spouses or parents who are well into their 80’s or 90’s are doing the same — just lounging through the later (and last) years of their life, and I have mixed feelings about this. I, as I suspect many do, have this vision of being active and vibrant right up to the end — maybe this is what keeps me going, but this needn’t be the only reality. As long a person’s emotional and physical needs are met, who’s to say how they should live their life especially after giving so much for so many years.

But I digress … I see a similarity between what military survivors (and their caregivers) face, and what the survivors of any extraordinary medical event such as stroke and their caregivers face, and that is loneliness.

A traumatic brain injury or cancer or any life threatening event that has lasting implications creates barriers between the survivor and the rest of the world. These barriers might affect communication, physical activity, financial security or more, and may be actual or perceived. The isolation that results takes a person who might have been active, social and self-sufficient, and makes s/he dependent, depressed and lonely. It can literally take a village to break through this and keep the survivor vibrant and engaged. We often see stories on the news of survivors who overcame great odds and rose to great heights — these stories are inspiring and offer hope, but they are also rare, and out of the reach of many.

One of my favorite books, “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle tells the story of a family’s battle (along with the help of some cosmic friends) against IT, the Dark Thing that is overtaking the cosmos. IT sucks the joy and happiness out of everything it touches but can be, and is ultimately defeated.

“Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure.”

I propose that IT is in part, loneliness and isolation — the loss of the feeling of community and belonging with the people around you. This survivor’s black hole pulls others into in like a gravitational force — the first to succumb may be the caregiver(s) who find life increasingly disrupted. I knew when J first had her stroke there would be an amazing outpouring of compassion, concern, assistance, and love from our friends, family and community, and there was just that. I also knew that over time this would wane as people got caught up in their own lives and time marched on, and I tried to proactively discourage too much help early on as I expected it would more beneficial one or two years later when the battle was still going on. I was trying to avoid the fatigue that inevitably sets in after disasters be they national, communal or individual. Certainly there are those friends and family who have provided ongoing support and encourage through J’s saga, though this circle has shrunk significantly over the past two years as our new reality has settled in — to no one’s fault, as I’ve said repeatedly J’s battle is a marathon, and not everyone is equipped for the long haul.

So what can the average person do to help? I believe the answer is simple whether we’re talking about a veteran or some other type of survivor, and it doesn’t require money or much time or even a casserole. The answer is best expressed (surprisingly) by this 1980’s AT&T commercial refrain and song most memorably sung by Diana Ross:

Reach out and touch
Somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place
If you can

Take a little time out of your busy day
To give encouragement
To someone who’s lost the way
(Just try)
Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own
We can change things if we start giving
Why don’t you

Reach out and touch
Somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place
If you can
Reach out and touch
Somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place
If you can

If you see an old friend on the street
And he’s down
Remember his shoes could fit your feet
(Just try)
Try a little kindness you’ll see
It’s something that comes very naturally
We can change things if we start giving
Why don’t you

Reach out and touch
Why don’t you (Why don’t you)
Reach out and touch somebody’s hand
Reach out and touch
Somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place
If you can

Songwriters: Nickolas Ashford / Valerie Simpson
Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand) lyrics
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Have a great Memorial Day weekend and take a moment to reach out to someone struggling against the Dark Thing!