Why We Need to Make Time for Connection

Romy Terkel, June 2020

Old man in wheelchair sitting alone staring out at garden.

It’s easy to forget why we need to make time for connection with others in today’s world, where “being busy” feels like a lifestyle and moving at a frantic pace seems obligatory. According to Brené Brown, a well-known author and research professor, connection is the reason we are here — “it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” https://brenebrown.com/the-research/ And yet, we are the most disconnected population ever! We have this relentless intimacy with the digital world, but we are lonelier and more disconnected from each other than ever.

Our country’s population is in the middle of a fundamental shift: we now have more seniors than children. Many seniors live alone and occupy fewer social roles, and this trend is only going to continue to deepen. Older people tend to be less socially active because they’ve lost partners and friends, and often, health and mobility problems get in the way. So, it’s often harder for them to feel connected.

Psychological research has shown that our drive for social connectedness is so deeply wired in us that being lonely actually hurts. We are coming to understand more and more as a society that mental health is just as important as physical health, and loneliness and isolation have profoundly tragic and debilitating effects, which can include depression, accelerated cognitive decline and premature mortality. Therefore, the main reason why we need to make time for connection is because it is a core human need that is essential to our well-being and survival. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation

…the main reason why we need to make time for connection is because it is a core human need that is essential to our well-being and survival.

I can’t think of a more meaningful way to connect with elderly people than by listening to their stories. Everybody has a story and everybody reminisces — and loves to have someone to reminisce with. For elderly people who often report feeling socially isolated and marginalized, having a space to share stories is a particularly humanizing experience.

Recently, I learned that some long-term care homes are documenting residents’ stories. They fill out the details of a person’s life history in a much more meaningful way than what can be found in clinical history forms. It’s important to know more about residents than their specific conditions and illnesses. By digging deeper and having more information about the residents as individuals, care plans can be better aligned with residents’ needs and caretakers can connect with them in more significant ways.

Let’s say your mother is admitted as a new resident and can no longer answer simple questions. What if somebody at the long-term care home asked: What did your mother enjoy? What did she value? What was important to her? Let’s say you share that she was a classically trained pianist who loved listening to Beethoven. What if that information was shared with your mother’s caretaker? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the caretaker to know that playing this kind of music could soothe your mother when she feels agitated or sad?

It is no exaggeration to say that making time for this type of connection ends up becoming life-enriching, and even life-saving in our chronically disengaged society.

Who we are cannot be determined by a single snapshot in time or by any one single measure. I learned this lesson in my previous career, when I worked with young students who had trouble keeping up academically and managing their behaviour appropriately. I tested their abilities and skills to discover more about why they struggled. Was it an issue with intelligence? Memory? Attention? Anxiety? I also observed them in their classrooms, spoke with their parents and teachers, and reviewed their past report cards. I needed to gather this information to make appropriate recommendations. Because without knowing their full histories, I couldn’t understand who they were. Therefore, another reason why we need to make time for connection is because it’s the key to understanding.

If a student was referred to me because he was having difficulty focusing in class and controlling his impulses, I couldn’t just assume that the cause of those difficulties was an underlying attention disorder, despite what the symptoms implied. Because what if I reviewed all of his previous report cards and learned that he had never presented with those symptoms before? And what if I spoke to his mother and learned that his father recently got diagnosed with cancer? Or that he was getting bullied regularly at school?

We need to make time for connection by listening to stories — not just the cursory details.

We need to make time for connection by listening to stories — not just the cursory details. In the investment industry, there is a standard called Know Your Client (KYC). Its purpose is to learn detailed information about clients in order to provide great service and prevent liability. But, I’ve heard many wealth advisors share how important it is to go beyond the KYC forms in order to really know their clients and their deepest motivations. Of course, getting to know their clients’ full stories will allow them to provide better advice. But more importantly, it will deepen their connection and make the relationship authentic and trustworthy, which has a compounding beneficial effect on everyone involved.

Every person travels many journeys to arrive at the present moment. We need to go beyond the forms and the distractions, engage in real conversations, listen to people’s stories and make time to connect with them. The more we know a person, the more we honour their story, and the better we take care of them. And the better we take care of others, the better we are ultimately taking care of ourselves, and the legacy of our humanity.