Responding to

“Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you,
they're supposed to help you discover who you are.”

 Bernice Johnson Reagon
"Bubbles," or more particularly, our social bubbles, have taken on a critical new importance for many of us during the pandemic. Others of us have always known that our friends give us more than just companionship. Many cultures have known for hundreds of years that small groups of dedicated friends can help us live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

Blue Zone is the term given to geographic regions around the globe that are home to some of the world’s oldest people. For example, elders in Okinawa, Japan, one of the earliest identified blue zones, live extraordinarily better and longer lives than almost anyone else in the world, in large part because of the friendships they establish early on. 

Dan Buettner, who studies areas of the world in which people live exceptionally long lives, identified five Blue Zones, although he concedes there are probably more. They include Icaria, an island in Greece; Ogliastra, in Sardinia; Okinawa; Nicoya, in Costa Rica; and a small community of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. In these Blue Zones, diet, activity, rest, and connectedness to others all play critically important roles.

In Okinawa, the small groups of life-long friends are called moai. Originally, moais were formed to pool the resources of an entire village for projects or public works. If an individual needed capital to buy land or take care of an emergency, the only way was typically to pool money locally. Today the idea has expanded to become more of a social support network, a cultural tradition for built-in companionship. Moais last a lifetime and they appear to be one of the main reasons people there live to be 100.

We can create moais anywhere. They can be established around activities like walking or bird watching, or hobbies, like photography. The key is to find like-minded people with shared values and goals. While the pandemic has suspended many of our social activities, it's also given us some valuable lessons, particularly about friendships. We're learning who we can depend on. We're also learning who matters to us less than we thought. “It’s not only the importance of social connections [that matters], but also [what] we’ve learned about [those] relationships that's important," suggests Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. Which relationships last during COVID "is a really interesting thing to pay attention to. I’ll remember who kept texting when I wasn’t always texting back.
We're also never too old to create our own Blue Zones. Judith Graham writes, "Older adults in all kinds of circumstances, those living alone and those who are partnered, those in good health and those who are not, are deliberating what to do as days and nights turn chilly and coronavirus cases rise across the country. Some are forming small groups that agree on pandemic precautions and will see one another in person in the months ahead. Others are planning to go it alone." She describes the decision-making processes folks in their 60s to 80s are going through to determine if and how they will maintain contact with people outside of their households.

Two Minnesota psychologists have coined the term "SILOS," an acronym for “single individuals left out of social circles,” and their need for dependable social contact this winter. That's one of the reasons Kitchen Angels established Caring Callers, our program that connects volunteers with clients for a regular phone call. As one of the psychologists commented, “COVID brings life and death right up in front of us, and when that happens, we have the opportunity to make crucial choices — the opportunity to take care of each other.”

Our relationships give us more than just an opportunity to socialize in person. They can help us stay physically and mentally healthier. Even if we haven't yet created any pandemic bubbles or pods, it's not too late. We can always reach out to friends and explore the possibility of establishing our own moai. We still have winter, and likely much of spring, to get through. And once the pandemic ends (and it will), our moais can remain a source of support and comfort. After all, it's worked for the people of Okinawa for hundreds of years.

As we move forward through the winter, please continue to do everything you can to keep yourself and others as safe and as healthy as possible.

In gratitude,
Thank you for your vigilance. We want you to stay safe,
healthy, and informed.