It seems a little ironic that I began to write this piece at the beginning of a long weekend which I spent much of alone. My husband working, and my now grown up children who are pretty much nest flown, not around.
Loneliness, and its close partner isolation, is no small problem in Chronic Illness life. It isn’t something I had any real concept of before falling ill. That is, apart from visiting people who were alone or unwell, and being aware of folk who lived alone. Experiencing it first hand is completely different.
I am homebound, so have become very familiar with the term.
Can We Adjust?
For many people with a chronic illness, loneliness takes some time to accept as a new part of life, and takes time for those folk we know to adjust to knowing about. It’s an uncomfortable reality.
When my children were younger with their busy lives, they brought life and colour to the home. Just hearing them (they were very considerate about noise levels), eased that isolation. As they have matured, the home has gradually become quieter. Methods of communication have changed, which is also a challenge. Far less sitting at the end of the bed catching up on news. I know I am fortunate to have had that.
A big part of the challenge, and I personally see it as a challenge, is trying to adjust to it, not letting it defeat us and finding ways to help alleviate it. Easier said than done, I know.
So, I guess one of the hardest places to start is looking that gut wrenching statement in the eye and saying, yes, I admit it. I feel lonely. Ugh. I’ve done it.
Ways to Help Break the Loneliness
We need to be able to voice the isolation. We need ways to help us cope. Here are a few ideas.
• Tell someone. I know, far easier said than done.
• Contact/engage with a Support Group. Whether it be in person (if you are able), a forum, on Facebook, or interact on platforms you feel comfortable with or can manage. I was terrified when I first joined an online group. But I’ve made some lovely friends through it. None of whom I’ve met in person, yet! Like all things, it needs to be a balance you can manage.
• Messaging/texting. Maybe start a group chat that you can manage. Texting/messaging has been my life saver for years. Even though it often at one time could only be a single sentence.
• Phone calls. Not easy for or accessible for everyone, but they do help and can be planned in advance and a time and length set.
• Try to organise Support at home. Knowing someone will be popping in to help makes a world of difference.
• Try & keep your immediate Neighbours aware. Have their contact details if possible. If you feel comfortable with that.
• Gently remind people. Life gets busy and folks can forget.
• Invite a friend to pop by even if just for 10 minutes.
• Develop a hobby that you can enjoy without increasing your symptoms. I now have a little art/craft go to space, for that 10 minutes of ability.
• Is there a friend who might occasionally join you in that hobby?
• Listen to music. Build up a playlist or lists for different moods.
• Radio. I find some light-hearted Q&A type programmes helpful, when I can concentrate, as you’re hearing interaction. (TV is a no-no for me as it is too tiring).
• If book reading is possible, consider joining an online book group. Or write your own short review to look back on.
• Start a journal, to write your thoughts. And of course that means the opportunity to use Washi tape!
• Consider a Pet Companion.
• Write – a blog, poetry, haikus, a short story. This is of course, like so many strategies, subject to energy levels.
I do use many of these strategies in bite size pieces. Having face to face conversation I find very tiring, along with phone calls, hence the isolation. But with messaging, you can pace it. Especially with texting, as there is no pressure to formulate a quick reply.
I know, lists are all very well and I hope some of the suggestions might be of help. I’ve chosen to expand on one.
As I’m an animal lover, guess which one?
I’ll admit I am an out-and-out dog lover. I used to love taking my dog out and just enjoying their company and the elements. (I still do it in my mind). Walking a dog has been beyond my reach since onset of ME/CFS 14 years ago. And having had to say a heartbreaking farewell to our aged adoptee early on in the illness as age took him, could I/we ever have another? He was very special. Well, they all are. I’ll admit there was a void.
Details to consider
Ok. Yes! Before I continue, I can hear you asking. ‘Why on earth have a dog if you are housebound?’ I had that very same thought myself, for quite some time. I’ll explain as I go.
You’ll need two checklists.
The First Checklist
• Do you have any allergy issues to consider?
• Their daily care
• Suitable space for them to sleep, rest, have their little home/bed.
• Do you have any supplies already?
• Toileting and play space
• Storing their food and belongings
• Will they be with you in your room, do you need a blanket for your lap, bed, etc?
• Depending on the pet. Are you happy for them to have access to all areas of your home?
Where to Look
Our first companion adoptee came from a rehomer kennel very near by. Another point to bear in mind is, can you visit and will more than one visit be needed to the pet you hope to adopt? What is the adoption fee and general costs to get organised? You may notice I’m mentioning the word ‘adopt’. I’m an ‘adopt, don’t shop’ kind of person. But of course, it’s a personal choice.
An option could be to foster a pet for an animal charity or take on a pet via a charity that organise long term foster for pets that can no longer be cared for by their owner. This will generally mean that they will meet all veterinary costs, adoption fee, sometimes food, possibly exercise depending on the charity, of course depending on the chosen pet. But not carpet cleaner!
There will often be a home check involved for adopting/fostering a dog or cat.
You could consider a:
• Small mammal i.e. Hamster, Guinea Pig or Rat
• Fish (I have a 14 year old goldfish!)
• or of course a Dog
• There must be more that I’m yet to think of.
I would consider a cat, but am allergic. So that is a no for me.
The Second Checklist
As with all pets, there are care needs to consider.
• Pet Insurance
• Registering with a vet
• Food & feeding
• Washing bowls/water bottles
• Washing bedding
• Cleaning out a cage, cleaning a filter, litter tray, cleaning up poop (sorry, but it’s a given).
• And where dogs are concerned, do you have a garden or yard and is it secure? And exercise beyond the home.
Many pet foods can be ordered for delivery and bedding too.
It helps to work out who can help do what, can you manage any of it, and would you enjoy it? It‘s certainly not something to rush at. Best to have everything in place as best as possible, then any unexpected happenings won’t rock the boat too much. There will be an initial settling in period as you get to know each other’s routine.
And most importantly, what would having a pet companion bring into your life?
How Did I Decide?
Interestingly, a home visit from a Physio/OT a few years ago mooted the idea of us homing another dog. I think they saw the gaping hole our previous hound had left. She helped me think about strategies to make it possible, but there were some not thought of. We worked them out over time.
I was still unsure. Concerned how the caring side would go. But my husband was keen to see my face light up again. Sighthounds were suggested, as they are tall – little bending needed to pet etc, and they don’t require long walks, i.e 20 minutes twice a day as opposed to 1-2 hours. Thus making this more manageable for family alongside their caring role.
We looked into it, and after a little time adopted a pickly greyhound from a local rehomer kennel. Tall and quiet at the kennels. Nutty when he got home to warm blankets and a sofa. We were hooked. He became my 24/7 companion for the next decade. And apart from his slightly dodgy tummy, he was great. His understanding of my need for frequent lying rest and my days being slow was astonishing considering he had never previously known home life. He loved cuddles, play and company. And was oh so quiet and oh so accommodating.
The absolute worst part was the final farewell. He lay in my arms, with my husband and myself trying to hold it together. We didn’t. He had given more than can be put into words and brought joy to each day.
Could there be another?
I thought probably not, with children grown and flying off. But then a local dog walker came to my notice online. Mmm, interesting, I thought. And my husband again wanting to see that smile return.
I tentatively looked. We are more suited to a mature dog, as a young dog or at puppy stage wouldn’t be suitable for us or us for them. Possibilities came and went. I deliberated. Then a little beauty unexpectedly peeped out at me from a rehomer site. She’ll be gone in seconds, I thought.
Well, she was. Under my duvet!
Is it worth it?
I would say absolutely yes. Ok, there are times when paws may be muddy (on the bed!) and the odd early wakeup call. But I get to meet other dogs at my door as our houndie goes off for ‘playdates’. We fit these in with my husband’s work routine, to ease his load. I meet another lovely person, who’s also nuts about dogs. I also met the lovely foster mum, who so kindly brought our houndie here to meet me, as I couldn’t travel to her. We also have another friend who will help with exercising if needed. As you can probably tell, it’s a team effort.
I’m never alone. I have a playful fight for the duvet. And a constant distraction from loneliness and symptoms. I get to think about another’s needs and routine. Having a dog has increased my friendship group, brought stacks of giggles and improved my day to day mood. And there is always a hug waiting, wagging tail, gentle whine and a listening ear and endless cuddles. Oh and again, I’m never alone.
I asked the question among some of the spoonies I’m in contact with. And having their permission to include them, here are some thoughts about their Pet Companions.
Firstly, about Cats ~
Fay: “Having lost my pet companion, I can share how I miss his gentle breathing, stroking his lovely soft fur. Having M.E. my social life is restricted, and my cat would always run to greet me, making me feel loved and wanted. He brought me joy, even though he was an extra mouth to feed and lifting cat litter got harder each time.”
Sharon: “My cats are my constant companions, who sense when I need comfort, and are there for me when I’m home alone.”
Melanie: “At one point the other day, I was crying over my current pain (a torn tendon in my foot). For the rest of the day, my cats did not leave my side.”
Natasha: “I spend the majority of my time stuck in bed alone. Merlin, my cat, is company for me and entertainment when he is playing. It gives me someone to love and something to love back. He’s very affectionate and knows when I’m really struggling physically and emotionally. I’d be lost without him. Pets are so therapeutic. He’s my baby substitute too, lol!!”
Colette: “When I look at my cat and her silly sweetness, it brings me so much joy. I’m not sure I could take care of my cat without living with others. Cats are way easier than dogs, but there is still work way beyond what I can manage most days.”
And some thoughts about having a dog ~
Teri: “As I write this my overactive Springer Spaniel is curled up with me and I love how her closeness makes me feel happy and calm. On the downside a Springer is not the best choice for someone Chronically sick (ME, Fibromyalgia) as she is on the go all the time and can’t be left in the garden unsupervised.”
Phil: “I miss my dog Bess so much as she knew when I was heading for an attack without anyone teaching her how. She could give me up to an hour’s notice and frequently woke me in the night to let me know, licking until I awoke. (Coronary Syndrome X is the official title, translated as Coronery Artery Spasm.)”
Paula: “My dog Jess is so important to me. The M.E. means that I have to spend a lot of time alone. Missing out on a social life as well as attending family outings etc. Jess is the company I need. She is often curled up on the bed or sofa next to me. I also find her presence calming when anxious.”
Michele: “My dog is part of my family. She motivates me and loves me unconditionally. The only downside for me is that I can’t walk her. I have had CFS and fibro for ten years now.”
I’d say, if you like animals, then a Pet Companion could be well worth considering. Take your time to work out the details and what will be best for you. It will be time well invested. And if it’s not the right time, right now, perhaps invite a friend to visit with their pet, to help the decision process and enjoy their company at the same time.
Thanks for reading.
Penny from Hope found in M.E.
About the Author:
Penny is a Christian, Hope & Chronic Illness blogger, homebound by ME/CFS since 2004. Blessed with a husband who travels the bumpy ‘spoonie’ road in support. Pretty much an empty nester, but still a houndie mum. Penny started her blog in 2016, and aims to share hope, faith, encouragement and creativity with some humour. Laughter is a favoured hobby. She also dips into some sensitive topics within Chronic illness life. You can find Penny at www.hopefoundinme.wordpress.com.