When Mayor Jim Kenney ordered all Philadelphia residents to practice social distancing and stay home five weeks ago, Sabrina Ko, who lives in a Center City studio apartment, considered going to her family’s home for the duration of the pandemic.
But Ko, a 24-year-old software engineer, knew that to get to her family in Bergen County, N.J., she would have to pass through major transportation hubs like Port Authority in New York City, possibly putting her grandmother, who lives with her mom, at risk. Plus, she had just adopted a cat, and she didn’t want to leave him.
So Ko chose to stay in Philadelphia — alone.
“I thought it’d be safer for everyone if I stayed here,” she said.
Psychologists and researchers expect social distancing and quarantine to worsen mental health for a significant portion of the population, but people who live alone may be more at risk for symptoms of depression or anxiety. According to 2015 Census data, about one-third of Philadelphia’s households are individuals living alone.
“So much anxiety can be borne out of lack of knowledge,” said Kyle Holsinger, clinical and executive director of Delaware County Professional Services. “If someone is isolated and out of touch, that can really become a freight train of anxiety. The less social connectedness they have, the more those feelings can compound those thoughts.”
He stressed feelings of loneliness over an extended period of time can spiral into depression if not properly managed, and that can lead to poor work performance or physical health. That’s why it’s important for those who live alone to create an environment that feels safe and comfortable, Holsinger said.
“That could be putting up inspirational posters, or having music on in the background,” he said. “Or maybe taking breaks and walking around. The better we feel physically, the more likely we are to do something for self care, like using a meditation app on our smartphone or watching a religious service online.”
Ko sought mental health services through telemedicine about two weeks into quarantine to cope with the stress of not being able to separate work from personal time because of her small space. Spending time with her cat has also been helpful, she said.
“It’s nice to be able to hang out with another living being in real life, plus since we’re just getting to know each other it’s another fun activity to try to understand his quirks,” Ko said.
She also finds that following her normal morning makeup and skincare routine "helps me feel like I’m transitioning from comfy home time to productive work time.”
Before social distancing, Elizabeth Gorrie’s days as a marketing specialist were packed with face-to-face interactions. The 25-year-old South Philadelphia resident also taught yoga at a local studio.
“Living alone normally works great for me because I enjoy having my own space to decompress after a busy day,” she said. “However, since we can no longer connect in person, it’s been very challenging and feels isolating.”
Gorrie considered going to her parents’ home in Massachusetts, but as one of four children, she knew that processing the new normal of remote work in a packed house could be challenging. Instead, she focused her energy on finding a new routine in Philadelphia.
To keep herself busy, Gorrie, who is also a musician, has been singing, teaching herself new chords on the guitar, listening to records, and making up songs about quarantine life. She even adopted a dog — something that she had been considering before the pandemic.
At the beginning of stay-at-home orders, a lot of friends reached out on Zoom and FaceTime, but Gorrie doesn’t like video conferencing for another hour after an eight-hour remote work day. Instead, she has been calling friends on the phone and writing letters.
Writing letters "is a beautiful contrast to the onslaught of texts and emails seeking a quick reply,” Gorrie said. “There’s inevitably less immediacy in terms of response time.”
For Ko, video games like Animal Crossing have helped her stay connected with friends. She celebrated her 24th birthday with friends virtually last month — they watched “Bee Movie” and played games together over Zoom.
“It was almost better than a regular birthday since I got to spend time with friends who are scattered around the country who I wouldn’t have been able to celebrate with otherwise,” Ko said.
Holsinger said that reaching out to an old friend during this time can be an effective way of creating social contact. He also recommended setting timers that remind people to do things that make them feel good throughout the day, like drinking water or calling a loved one.
“I’m also happy to see that pet adoptions have shot up,” he said. “Pets are such wonderful forms of social contact. Caring for something and having something care about you can be very motivating.”
And while Holsinger understands how it’s tempting for people who live alone to use time spent in quarantine to tackle things they haven’t gotten around to doing, like picking up a new hobby or making home improvements, he said that making to-do lists that are unrealistic can actually be frustrating and demoralizing.
“When we think that we should do something, that sets us up for expectations,” he said. “So it’s better to try to accomplish two smaller things in one day, because that’s much more self-rewarding and achievable.”
Gorrie has seen a lot of tips online about how to be productive and optimize time spent at home, but she’s trying not to pressure herself to do more.
“I’m trying to just do what feels right in order to best care for myself,” she said. “Mostly, I’m taking it one day at a time, remembering to drink water, breathe, and laugh as much as possible."