Pathways to Friendship: A Friendship Lesson from the Pandemic by Phoebe Goodman

For some people, remote participation is a way to ease into an activity, providing an opportunity to gain confidence, competence and comfort that bodes well for future real connections.

When shelter-in-place orders began in early March 2020, we first started hearing about “social distancing” practices. However, is not really about being socially distanced; it is about being physically distanced to prevent us from spreading the virus. We had to limit in-person interactions with those who live outside of our “bubble” or home.

Remaining socially connected has its challenges when we are limited in our ability to connect with friends in-person. Many people, both with and without disabilities, have experienced increased social isolation due to these safety restrictions. Since people with disabilities start out being more likely to experience social isolation than those who do not have disabilities, it has been of the utmost importance to ensure people remain socially connected while physically distanced.

For people who live in DDS-funded residences, there have been strict rules surrounding community access throughout the pandemic. With day services closed, or operating at a very limited capacity, many people with disabilities supported by DDS are spending a lot of time at home. In some instances, day program staff, who are often skilled at running activities and groups, worked many hours at the residences to ensure the individuals were supported 24/7. Staff, families, and shared living providers have made incredible efforts to ensure people stay actively engaged at home. The opportunity to spend more time at home has allowed some people to develop new interests and hobbies that could lead to connection to others in the future.

For example, if a person learns a new craft such as origami while physical distancing, they could use that skill in the future to join an origami crafting group in-person. Even now, the person can join an online meet-up for crafting! (www.meetup.com) When considering picking an activity, we want to consider not only the person’s interests but the opportunities that activity could lead to for connection with others in the future. This is an opportunity to help someone explore their interests and gifts and hone those abilities. We aren’t trying to simply occupy time; we are focusing on who we can help this person become.

A residential director shared a story of a woman supported who has developed a love for baking during the pandemic. She began baking for her neighbors and has developed new connections in her neighborhood as a result. The house manager has been looking into online baking classes for her and plans on signing her up for baking classes in her community when it is safe to do so. She is connecting to her neighbors, developing her baking skills, and laying a foundation for future in-person connections.

We have adapted and have gotten creative with how to sustain work and personal relationships through a screen. We have learned to navigate online meeting platforms, like Zoom or FaceTime, to connect with friends, family, and colleagues. People with disabilities have also learned to use virtual platforms to connect with others recreationally and also professionally. This year we have seen how important accessibility is for us all. Technology can provide access to opportunities for engagement that might be inaccessible otherwise. For some, the use of technology for socializing, and the time to develop new interests, have been helpful in developing connections and friendships.

Some people with disabilities have found having the opportunity to participate virtually has allowed them to experience new things, such live streamed music performances. Live streamed performances are more accessible than a night club would be. Often there are few places to sit at a night club and there are no areas for sensory relief. For someone who loves music but feels overwhelmed when surrounded by too many people, or loud noises or lights, an at home concert is an accessible alternative. Watching at home alone is not social but people can watch live streams together with platforms like Twitch, Discord, House Party, or Zoom. Viewers can watch live performances and chat in real time with other viewers. Zoom viewing parties have also been a popular way to watch a movie “with” friends and then hold a discussion afterward.

Technology can also help some people relate more easily. Some people have found remote participation to be an easier way to connect, a way to “ease” into trying something new and meet new people. For some people with social anxiety, the ability to meet someone through a screen is a lot more comfortable than in-person interactions. It can reduce anxieties of meeting new people in person, making eye contact, shaking hands, etc. People can engage at their own pace, in their own environment, and take breaks as needed. These online interactions can help people get past their anxiety, gain confidence, and develop skills so they are ready to engage with others when it is safe to interact in-person.

Having the option to try a new activity in the comfort of your own home and at your own pace has proven advantageous for many of us. Just because we can’t take exercise classes in-person currently doesn’t mean we should stop moving our bodies. For example, a person could learn yoga poses at home in an online class and then join a community yoga studio in the future. Even now, friends can do yoga together outside, masked and physically distanced.

My friend Norma, who lives in a group home, has been hosting Sunday yoga for us. During the summer we enjoyed her back yard for practice. Now that it is getting colder, her residence has cleared their two-car garage, put in a small portable space heater, and setup up the space for us to practice. We have maintained our yoga practice together throughout the pandemic, despite not being able to attend any studio classes. On days when we don’t want to do yoga, the table and chairs setup in the garage allows us to make jewelry and chat comfortably. We stay safe by maintaining airflow and physical distance while at the same time we enjoy and preserve our interest in yoga and, most importantly, or friendship.

More Ideas for Connection:

  • Gardening in the yard during the summer, offering produce to neighbors.
  • Raking leaves in the fall, or shoveling for a neighbor in the winter.
  • Religious services via Zoom.
  • Virtual guided yoga and meditation groups (Meetup & Zoom).
  • DIY crafting and painting groups (Meetup & Zoom).
  • Music live streams with video dance party (Twitch, Zoom, House Party app, etc.).
  • Yoga in the backyard with a friend (physically distanced & masked).
  • Bird watching at the arboretum with a friend (physically distanced & masked).
  • Writing letters, making cards, or drawing pictures to mail to friends and family.
  • Baking cookies & dog biscuits for neighbors and their pets.
  • Porch or garage hang outs (physically distanced & masked).
  • Painting rocks and sharing them in your neighborhood/connecting with others online (https://www.thekindnessrocksproject.com/).
  • Volunteering at a safe distance is a great way to get connected in one’s community (https://www.volunteermatch.org/).

These physically distanced times have caused all of us to get creative and really think outside the box to stay connected to friends and family. Even though virtual platforms can prove to be great way to connect with others, there is a caution here. Remote connection is not the same as in-person. It is important to recognize this because we will need to encourage and support people with disabilities to connect in their communities, in-person, when it is safe to do so. Remote participation cannot replace in-person interaction. When it is safe to return to in-person group classes, events, and activities in the community, we must! It is imperative that we do not lose sight of the importance of these in-person interactions.

As stated earlier, people with disabilities are more likely to be isolated and experience loneliness. The pandemic has helped us all to open our eyes about what it feels like to be lonely. Hopefully, this increased empathy will help highlight the importance of enduring friendships for all of us, and especially for the people being served in our programs. Having a friend to lean on in challenging times is essential for us all. If we are to be help people have others who are there for them, keeping our “eyes on the prize” of friendship is essential both now while physically distanced, and in the future when we can safely connect in-person again.

Resources:

Online Platforms to Connect:

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