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Chronic loneliness, the virus and John Prine

Margaret McDowell Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

"You know that old trees just grow stronger

And old rivers grow wilder every day;

Old people just grow lonesome

Waiting for someone to say

Hello in there, hello.'

- From "Hello in There" as performed by John Prine

John Prine was penning and performing songs about chronic loneliness long before it was recognized as a serious medical condition. We lost "The Singing Mailman" at age 73 recently to the coronavirus. Like John Prine, many of our elders and fellow citizens are dying suddenly and alone. It's a cruel fate.

Loneliness was only one of many human themes Prine addressed in his music. He won two Grammy Awards, was honored by every major songwriting organization, and his work repeatedly earned comparisons to Mark Twain.

We were neighbors briefly. Prine grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. He often sat in the family kitchen with his Dad's small Philco tuned to country station WJJD, and listened to artists and influences like Jimmie Rodgers, Roger Miller and Hank Williams. That was my Dad's favorite station, too.

Prine was a laissez-faire student, but an incredibly talented writer/poet, composing his first two songs at age 14. After a brief military stint, he returned to Chicago and resumed his job as a mailman. The people he encountered and the lives he observed became subjects for his tunes. He arrived home after work one afternoon with the melody and lyrics to Hello in There playing in his head. Lacking a piece of paper, he wrote the song on three pieces of discarded cardboard that were part of a hosiery purchase made by his wife.

Chronic loneliness occurs when people experience feelings of uncomfortable social isolation for an extended period of time. And of course, that's exactly what we're all enduring now. Soon, the uptick in suicide, depression, stress and illness may outweigh the benefits of staying separated from one another. Chronic loneliness is associated with greater risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress, decreased memory and learning, antisocial behavior, poor decision-making, alcoholism and drug abuse, sleep disorders, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, low self-esteem, the progression of Alzheimer's disease and altered brain function.

Elders can connect with their doctor, their pharmacist, their investment advisor and other professionals by phone and email. And they can order food and other items by delivery. But for now and the near future, they must eschew face-to-face contacts. This means that elders (and everyone else, too) are missing the socialization involved with professional appointments, volunteering, church attendance, civic and hobby group meetings, and gatherings with family and friends. And these are exactly the interactions we need to keep us healthy and happy.

That we have been unable to visit in person with our clients, elderly and younger alike, during this health emergency and amidst recent market turmoil, is stressful for all involved. Other advisors surely feel the same. We are sacrificing face-to-face interactions in the interests of our clients' health and our own, but soon, we'll all need someone to say, "Hello in There, Hello."

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column “Arbor Outlook,” is founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850.608.6121 –, a fiduciary, fee-only, registered investment advisory firm near Destin. This column should not be considered personalized investment advice and provides no assurance that any specific strategy or investment will be suitable or profitable for an investor.