How to make meaningful connections when social distance is the order of the day

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Editor's Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to for UAB's current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.

rep loneliness 550x413pxResearch shows that loneliness has equivalent health effects to heavy smoking. But a willingness to reach out — and listen — can work wonders said UAB Pastoral Care program Director Malcolm Marler.Loneliness is our specialty.

That mission statement is prominent on the website for UAB’s Pastoral Care team. “We have been focusing on loneliness for a few years now,” said Director Malcolm Marler, who leads a team of 30 chaplains at UAB Hospital. “What we mean by that is the importance of having meaningful connections to others.”

There is a mountain of research showing that loneliness is detrimental to health, Marler said. In a meta-analysis of nearly 150 studies, published in 2010, researchers found that greater loneliness is tied to a higher risk of death. In fact, a study author said, the health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Just this past month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a 280-page report on social isolation and loneliness in older adults that linked loneliness with increased risk of dementia, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and high cholesterol. More than a quarter of Americans ages 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated, the report noted.


Meaningful connections are key

Battling loneliness means realizing “the importance of having meaningful connections to others,” Marler said. He is a big fan of social media, sharing his love of nature photography on Facebook, Instagram and more, along with a brief reflection — “a sentence or two that is encouraging and hope-filled,” he said. But “social media can isolate as well as connect,” he cautioned. “We think we are connected to all of these people but it’s more often just sharing information rather than caring for individuals. It is not so much how many friends you have, or how many family members are in the area, but is it a meaningful connection to you? Do you have the sense that anybody is checking on you, that anybody cares for you?”

Battling loneliness means realizing “the importance of having meaningful connections to others.”

Right now, in the midst of the COVID–19 pandemic, “it is really critical because people are isolated and you can quickly lose a sense of hope and feel like, ‘Does any of this really matter?’” Marler said.

At UAB Hospital, UAB Highlands and the Kirklin Clinic, UAB Pastoral Care trains chaplain residents and chaplain interns to build meaningful connections to patients. In 1994, Marler and his team began a program to take their struggle against loneliness outside the hospital walls through Community Support Teams.

Here are some of the lessons they share with trainee chaplains and community volunteers:

Be a listener

“People want to be able to tell their stories” — almost always in crisis but, for most, even in the routine events of daily life — Marler said. “We have something that has been hard for us individually and we want to get that out. There is healing in being heard.”

Avoid connecting too quickly

rep malcolm marler portrait 413px550pxMalcolm Marler“We tell a friend about our experience and they will often say, ‘That’s just like something I experienced’ and they will begin telling their own story,” Marler said. “Part of what we do as chaplains is not say, ‘Yeah, we’re having the same experience.’ We want to find out, How is this experience unique for you? Being interested in how another person is experiencing their situation is more helpful than giving them advice about what they should do.”

Take the initiative

“We’ve learned that it is more helpful to stay in touch than wait on the other person to call us and tell us what they need,” Marler said. “We’re encouraging folks everywhere to call and check on people, because there are a lot of people who if they are not checked on and encouraged, they could become patients in our hospitals as well. If you are part of a faith community, think about what is an organized way to call your members, especially those over the age of 60, on a regular basis to make sure they have what they need, whatever their needs might be.” In normal times, Community Support Teams will take people to doctor’s appointments, or out shopping.

Now, “we need to think of creative ways to connect with those we know, or to get to know people, without breaking social distancing guidelines,” Marler said. “Maybe it’s picking up medications or delivering groceries and leaving them outside the door.” His sister lives in a local nursing home, where all the residents have been quarantined in their rooms. “My wife and I have made sure we have a daily phone call instead of visiting her once or twice a week.”

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Do what you love

In their Community Support Teams training, the Pastoral Care staff encourage volunteers to start by evaluating their own interests. “What do you enjoy doing when helping someone? It’s different for everyone,” says a 10 Best Practices guide on “Support Teams last longer and are more effective when you are doing what you love to do. And it is more joy-filled.”

Be mindful of your issues — and don’t project them on to others

Part of the training for chaplain interns and residents is, “How can we be a non-anxious presence in an anxiety-filled room, or world?” Marler said. “All of us on staff have done a year of health care pastoral training after we’ve finished a master’s degree” in counseling or a related field. “Basically it’s learning how to observe our own biases and our own vision of the world and not let it get in the way of meeting someone else’s need,” Marler said. "I’m not going to project how I’m feeling, assuming that the other person would feel the same way I would. I’m going to ask questions for clarification about their experience.

“In our training we’re taught to be aware of our own issues,” Marler said. “We all have our own issues because of our personalities and family of origin. You can’t not have those but you can be aware of them and step outside and observe them.”

Be open to what this situation can teach you

“As terrible as this COVID-19 pandemic is, it’s just like any crisis,” Marler said. “We need to be open to what it can teach us. I’m not glad it’s here — I don’t know anybody who is — but if we can be open, we will learn something.”