Apr 7, 2021

Our last blog, entitled “Openings,” looked with anticipation toward the time – which seems to be fast approaching — when congregate nutrition programs throughout the nation will open once again and welcome back both familiar clients and new ones. Some, in fact, already have. Others are in full preparation mode.

But there is one issue that we and they may not be adequately prepared for. That is the difficulty of “re-entry” that psychologists suggest many seniors may experience as society and its familiar institutions resume regular operations. “Re-entry” is a word often associated with NASA and the space program. Although at first blush that might seem like a strange analogy to compare to the re-opening of senior centers and their nutrition programs, we will argue the opposite. We believe there is much to learn from NASA’s focus on ensuring a safe and well-planned “re-entry” is as important to the mission as lift-off.

Consider this. While we have all remained firmly planted on terra firma, living in the same communities and even residing in the same houses, for the past year or more we really have been dwelling in a different world. In many ways it was as unfamiliar as outer space. All of us, to one extent or another, were socially isolated. The inevitable result of such an experience is that we have all changed to some degree. We all grew older, for example, and some of us are not pleased with the visible, physical toll that what seemed like a more rapid than normal aging process had on us. There are a multitude of other examples and each of us can certainly name at least one that had a palpable impact on us.

More significantly, psychologists tell us, many of us lost that sense of belonging that is critical to health and happiness. In part that is due to the tension we experienced when the “real world” as we had known it was forced to take a back seat to the virtual one. The promise and pleasure of Zoom often morphed imperceptibly into Zoom power, that allowed us to mute a friend or family member with the click of a mouse, or Zoom fatigue, that left us weary and often feeling even lonelier and more isolated.

All of that was for all of us, at least metaphorically speaking, like dwelling in another world; or, to pick back up on the figure of speech, like travelling to and temporarily residing in outer space. Now, happily, it is time to return to life on earth as we knew it, to resume old routines, to engage again with old friends.

Who among us, do we naturally expect, will be most eager to do so and will benefit the most from that opportunity? Those who have lived alone, of course, we are probably quick to respond. Logic would suggest so. But the restoration of that lost sense of belonging, or of the need to belong, can be an impediment to that desire to re-engage, say the social scientists. It can keep the socially isolated “comfortably” in its grasp. It can deter a return to those formerly customary and life-enhancing activities.

NASA and the space program had it right. Even a short stint in an unfamiliar world can have long-range psychological and physical consequences. The good news is, they need not be permanent so long as we acknowledge them and take concrete steps to ameliorate them. Senior centers and congregate nutrition programs in particular need to be aware of that and to begin preparing now some plans and protocols that will ease and encourage the return of those who have been caught in the orbit of solitude and isolation for so long. Theirs will be a return as worthy of celebration as any re-entry “splash down” could ever be.

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