A. Eating Out: Our Prescription for Minimizing Social Isolation and Stress

Two of the significant problems faced by caregivers are social isolation and stress. They are nearly impossible to avoid. I have tried a variety of things to minimize the problem. They have all helped to a greater or lesser extent. For me, however, one thing in particular stands out. That is eating out for all (lunch and dinner) our meals. The bonus is that it has also been good for Kate.

I can’t say that I had a plan for eating out. It is something that evolved over the course of time. Prior to Kate’s diagnosis, I worked full time. I had my regular Monday Rotary lunch and often had business lunches another one or two days a week. Following the diagnosis, I committed myself to spending more time with Kate. The first step was to spend my lunch hour with her. I continued going to Rotary, but I only scheduled business lunches when there wasn’t another satisfactory option. Since I had been in the habit of eating out for lunch, it was only natural that I would take Kate with me rather than our eating together at home.

One of Kate’s early symptoms was not remembering to fix dinner. When this happened, I either fixed something at home, brought something in, or, occasionally, we ate out. As a child, I was the one who washed the dishes. When we married, I assumed that responsibility. It wasn’t long before I felt that fixing the dinner and washing the dishes were preventing my spending additional time with Kate. Gradually, we found ourselves eating out regularly and then all the time.

Originally, I wasn’t thinking about eating as beneficial in connection with either isolation or stress. At that point, neither of us was socially isolated. It is only after the fact that I have discovered the benefits of eating out. Early on, we picked our places to eat like most people do. I would ask Kate where she wanted to go. If gave me a suggestion, I would accept that. If she didn’t, I would make a choice. We quickly established a regular set of restaurants. Now I know where we will eat lunch and dinner every day of the week with a few changes now and then. There is no discussion. Kate actually prefers it that way because it doesn’t require any thought on her part. Besides, I know all the places she likes and the meals she likes at each one.

I have made it a point to know our servers’ names and something about each one. At half of the restaurants, I request a specific server. That way he or she gets to know our preferences and a little something about us. I have also told them about Kate’s diagnosis to prepare them for anything unusual that might happen like not being able to find our table when she comes back from the restroom.

At our Saturday and Sunday lunches, our servers are accustomed to our showing up; so if we are late or, by chance, have been unable to make it that day, they are concerned about us. Recently, when we were in Texas for Kate’s cousin’s funeral, I thought about calling them so they wouldn’t worry. They give us a big hug when we arrive and when we leave. Unless they are unusually busy, we have brief conversations about special things that is going on in our lives. We know about their spouses and children and get updates on them. It becomes a very natural and warm social interaction. It is also one in which Kate can participate without any particular pressure. We are rarely in a hurry. That means the meal and conversation are especially relaxed.

On Monday night, we go to Chalupas for Mexican food. We have become acquainted with the owner, his wife, and three children, all of whom work there part time. There are several different servers. We know all of them. We take the one the owner selects for us. I speak a little Spanish and use it in conversation with them. Occasionally, I can’t think of the words I want and resort to English or ask them to help me with the words. They seem to enjoy teaching me. No matter who serves us on a given night, the others always drop by to say hello. One young man is from Colombia. We spent the summer there in 1976, and we have enjoyed conversations about our time there. Another  young lady is from Venezuela. She was pleased when she learned that we had also visited her country.

The restaurant where we ate lunch today is one of our favorites. They have several different menu items that we enjoy. On top of that we’ve gotten acquainted with two of their servers as well as the hostess and the manager. Once in a while, I notice that the server hasn’t charged us for our dessert. When I have asked, she tells me that the manager took care of it as she did today. I could relate similar stories for the other places we eat, but you get the idea.

There are two other restaurants we often visit that have their own special stories. One of those is Casa Bella. We eat there the first, second, and third Thursday nights a month. It has been a favorite of ours for many years. We made our first visit in the early 1970s. It has only been in the past five years that we have eaten there on such a regular basis. That relates to the music they offer on Thursday nights. They bring in musicians who sing opera on the first Thursday of each month. They have jazz groups on the second Thursday, and they have Broadway on the third and fourth Thursdays.

Kate and I enjoy live performances, and the venue and the musicians are outstanding. If that were all, we would have a great time. There is more, however. We sit at a table for six or eight. We and one other couple are there almost every time. They are the 93-year old parents of the woman who currently runs the restaurant with her husband. We love this couple. They are known by lots of people in Knoxville. The benefit to us is that it we have a pleasant evening with them accompanied by good music. In addition, they have introduced us to many other people who attend. Although there are a few others who, like us, attend more than one program a month, each of the programs draws somewhat different audiences. That has enlarged our number of social contacts.

The other restaurant with its own special story is Panera Bread. I could write a book about this one. In fact, I am reminded of the book, How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill. The author tells the story of the role Starbucks played in his rebound from the loss of his job after a previously successful career in advertising. I am not ready to make that same claim for Panera, but it has been a very important place in our lives for the past four or five years. It has nothing to do with the food. It is its contribution to our social lives.

Although Starbucks and Panera are different kinds of operations, they are similar in that they are not simply places to eat or drink. They are places for social engagement.

Like eating out, I did not start going there with any thought of its being anything other than a place to eat. What a surprise to discover its other benefits, especially for people like us.

Although there are a lot of personnel changes that take place, there is a little bit of continuity. We know a number of them, and they know us. We go there almost every morning to get a blueberry muffin for Kate and drinks for each of us. It is not unusual for someone working behind the counter to spot us outside or as we enter the door and have Kate’s muffin waiting for me when I order. On Wednesday and Thursday, a mentally-challenged young woman works during the time we are there. She looks for us and frequently is waiting at the door to give each of us a big hug. She also likes to stop by our table to say a few words.

However, It isn’t the staff that gives the place the feel of a social center. It’s the other customers that make that happen. Panera just provides the venue. There are a multitude of other individuals and groups that spend time there just as we do. Some of these are people we know from the neighborhood or other places In the community. There are a number of tutors who meet their clients. Every Tuesday morning, a group of 10-12 from a local Baptist church have their weekly Bible study there. We know one its members and have met the gentleman who does the teaching. We talk with each of them after they have finished. There are others from a Catholic Church who stop by after morning mass. We have become acquainted with them. One of them, in particular, often sits with us at our table when the rest of his group is not there. We also encounter other friends who have just stopped by and engage in brief conversations.

In addition to our morning visits, we frequently make at least one other trip later in the day. This occurs because Kate gets restless after an hour or so. When this happens at home, she walks into the kitchen with her iPad. I know that means she is ready to go back to Panera. That is not the only evidence I have that Kate enjoys going there. This very afternoon after we had our haircuts, I told her we had another hour or so before it would be time for dinner. I told her we could go home and spend the time there are we could go to Panera. She quickly said, “Let’s go to Panera.” I am sure the only reason she feels this way is that she feels better getting out and being around other people even when we are not engaged in conversation with them.

To add a little variety to our days, I recently started making an occasional afternoon trip to Barnes & Noble. We haven’t gone there nearly as much, but I can see the potential for our achieving the same kind of feeling about it. Their café is not as large as Panera, but there are only two or three staff on duty; so they already know us. We are also meeting more of the regulars there. Sunday afternoon we saw a couple come in and look for a table. We were seated at two tables for two pulled together to seat four. I told them we would separate the tables so that they could have one for themselves. They accepted. Then we ended up in a conversation that lasted almost an hour. It turned out that we have mutual friends as well as other interests. It made for a pleasant impromptu social occasion.

One of the added benefits for Kate is that we frequently see babies and young children. Most of the time she just watches them with delight. Sometimes she plays “peak-a-boo” with them. She often speaks to the older ones, asking their names or something about the toys with which they may be playing. These are short moments, but they are moments of pleasure for Kate.

None of this is to suggest that eating out is a substitute for having more enduring friendships. Although they are out of town, we have several of those. I make sure we stay in contact with them as well. On a day-in-day-out basis, however, I feel we eating out represents at least three social occasions every day. I can’t overstate how important that has been in minimizing isolation as well as stress. One of the other benefits is that these kind of interactions are not lengthy. It is much easier for Kate to enjoy those than longer ones.