I Don’t Have Anybody: Loneliness and Health

It has been almost three weeks since I started my internships at Bread for the City and Catholic Charities. I’ve started to get a view of what my work looks like, and how it fits into both each organization’s mission and public health in D.C. My days at Bread usually consist of helping organize and run their extensive food pantry, which serves hundreds of people a day. This is a lot of on-the-ground, with-the-people work, and it is as exhausting as it is rewarding. 

Recently, a lot of my time at Bread has involved making calls. Because of a lack of funding, the organization has had to cut their food delivery program. For the past few years, since the beginning of the pandemic, they have delivered monthly groceries to many clients around the city. The program is shuttering on July 1, and we have to call all 1,500 (yes) recipients before then to let them know. I have the script practically memorized at this point: We have to end the delivery program, no, there is not enough money for it, yes, the pantries will still be open, yes, from Monday through Thursday, 9 am to 3 pm. The phrasings of “this number is no longer in service,” or “this number cannot accept calls” are ingrained in my mind at this point. 

Nearly everyone was very understanding, although I’m sure this created a considerable disruption to their food supply. The monthly deliveries are not meant to provide every single meal for a whole month, but they are a significant supplement. They are often part of a puzzle, put together with other pieces from other nonprofits, services and purchased food. People were sympathetic about the financial constraints and made plans to come in-person, and lots were thankful I let them know. A few people were upset, and I was hung up on a few times. 

The calls that have stuck with me, though, are the ones of older people who are homebound, from illness, immobility, or both. And when I go into the next part of my spiel – don’t worry! If they can’t get to us, they can send someone to pick up their groceries for them! – these callers have responded with “well, I don’t have anybody.” Nobody – no family or friends, no caretaker or assistant, no neighbor or random neighborhood acquaintance. They “don’t have anybody” to pick up their food, their medication, help them get dressed, or just to sit and spend time with them. 

I am especially struck by this loneliness when I think about all of the people I have interacted with today. I called my parents and brother, who are all interested in my summer. I played pickleball and went to a museum with my friend Caroline. I went to church with my great aunt and uncle (with whom I am living) and chatted with the pastor afterwards. All of those people would help me if I needed it – and these are only the people I saw today. Being confined to bed would be immensely difficult for anyone, even if they were well-connected. But to go at it alone – I’m embarrassed to say that it is difficult for me to comprehend and it is mind-boggling in its emptiness. This is a loneliness that stands apart, and is far deeper than any of my dabblings during my first semester of college. 

From my reading list, provided by Dr. Holman, I have begun Religion as a Social Determinant of Public Health,by Ellen Idler. In it, she describes how there is something about religion that is good for health.1 Even when controlling for related variables (like being married or drinking less), the uplifting community that religion creates consistently predicts a longer lifespan. Being with other people and feeling connected to them is not only good for the soul, but also good for the body. So in a way, facilitating connection is one of the ultimate public health interventions. It’s probably why the surgeon general called our nation’s loneliness “an epidemic.”

When I read this information today, I couldn’t help but think about Alice*, who sounded as though she might be about to cry when she said she didn’t have anyone to get her groceries for her. Her voice sounded like my grandmother’s as she described how she is bedridden. Or about Cassandra*, who was struggling to think of someone to do her pickup after her son passed away on Friday. There is a depth to this loneliness that touches on a spiritual level, but hurts physical health, too. 

This (very) windy thought tangent has started to nudge me outside of what I typically picture as public health interventions. This is beyond the typical vaccinations and seatbelts – how can we prescribe something so intangible as connection, to a culture so desperately in need of a cure? My normal knee-jerk response of “public policy” is limited here. The types of community interventions, as well as the layered complexities of social determinants of health, are something I will enjoy diving into with Dr. Holman during our next meeting.

As I begin to think about what it means to be a Christian in public health spaces, and to serve others through faith, I think about Ms. Jeanette, one of my supervisors at Bread. During some of the busiest parts of the day – when the line of customers keeps growing, the grocery bags keep tearing, and my feet are sore – is when she likes to play her gospel music. It isn’t a dramatic singalong, but an underlying soundtrack that everyone who enters the food bank can hear. 

Her music is not just some silly, platitudinous attempt to tell the people coming in for food to “not worry, because God has a plan!” I don’t think that’s comforting, and I doubt many other people think it is, either. Somehow Ms. Jeanette finds additional room for praise in the midst of need. But there is also grief: “in the darkest night you are close like no other,” one song says. There is both praise and lament in this space, where the hungry are lonely, and somehow there is still a God walking alongside. 

1 Idler, Ellen L. (2014). Religion as a social determinant of public health. Oxford University Press.

2 Murthy, Vivek H. Office of the Surgeon General. (2023). Our Epidemic of Loneliness: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.