I remember what my mother said in the '60's

The first time I heard the term “a shut-in”

By: Director of LAO

article image

If you're a “baby-boomer”, like me, see if you remember hearing this term, used by your parents.

When I was a kid, growing up in the 60's in a mid-western town of about 12,000 people, a woman lived about a 1/2-block from our house. I remember the house well, as it was covered in native-rock masonry, and had a nice 2-car garage (something not so common, in those days). We neighborhood kids, though, never saw her come out of the house. So, being kids, this woman was the subject of a number of stories we would make up.

I even remember one Halloween night, several of us tried knocking on her door, hoping for some candy. Even though the lights were on, no one ever came to the door. Once in a while, on some days, you would see her car back out of the garage, and come back later – that's all we saw of her.

I was maybe 9 or 10 years old when I finally asked my mother why this woman was never outside, with all the other neighbors. My mother told me “she's a shut-in, ever since her husband passed away.” And that's the first time I ever heard the term used for another person.

In looking up the colloquial term today, I find its origins go back a long way. Described as "a person confined from normal social interaction" [thesaurus.com], the term shut-in was actually “coined” in 1904. Although such persons were seldom known of in the 1960's, especially in small-town America, I suspect even then that what we now call “social isolation” was far more prevalent than anyone would have imagined. And common sense tells me today that, if I [living in that small town] had a neighbor just down the street who was a “shut-in”, there would have been many more cases in large cities, with large populations.

Today, researchers peg the increase in incidence of social isolation to beginning at the time of the industrialized age in America; studies conducted have shown its increase since that time. However, it's interesting to me that this very term “shut-in”, long-ago used to describe people exhibiting isolationism and reclusiveness, should have first been attributed to this disorder right about the time of the start of the “industrial revolution”, as well.

Even more telling is that the disorder now known as “social isolation” must have existed – although on a much-smaller scale – prior to being given a name in 1904. Therefore, this affliction has affected people in our society for over 100 years. Statistics of its increase, and data on its effects on humans' physical health and mental well-being, are easily found in research today, spanning the last 30-40 years. However, as with many baffling disorders and illnesses, no concensus on the approach to “fixing” it is ever presented.

In the first half of the 20th century, people were more involved in their community. Neighbors were concerned for neighbors, their friends and family, and their co-workers and fellow church members. A person, as a “shut-in”, would have had more people worry for them, check in on them, and make sure they had what they needed back then.

And yet, even though my parents knew both families living in the houses on either side of this woman's house, and across the street, I cannot recall my mother ever showing concern for this woman's health and well-being. Still, I cannot believe, as “tight” as our neighborhood was, that Mom and others were not aware of the woman's condition nearly every day. I was simply too young, and busy being a kid, to notice what else went on there in our neighborhood, on a daily basis.

In the last half of the 20th century, and into the 21st, people have grown less concerned about their friends and neighbors; and gradually, so much so, that we've come to the point that it's almost intrusive into their “business”, if we keep up on what's going on with them. How did we come to this? Where did the "tight" neighborhoods disappear to?

There must come a time when we recognize that, by turning a blind-eye to another's suffering [especially suffering alone], we lose a bit of our own humanity, our own sense of community, and our own sense of belonging.

Submitted By: Bryani M.
---- Elephant Butte, NM



Use the SEARCH box at top of this page to find out how many others are registered in your area. Enter your ZIP code [or ZIP code of your loved one] and click 'SEARCH'.


If you are interested in giving just a bit of your time as a volunteer, we'd like to hear from you. You could assist us greatly by getting the 'word out' in your community regarding our services to people. Follow this link to learn some of the ways you can be a volunteer for us.


Currently our organization efforts are focused on reaching out to thousands of individuals so they may register for our services. It is no small feat for us to seek out and utilize the many avenues available for contact. We need your help toward this end. Please use DONATIONS link, to give whatever you can. You will help to defray our mailing and advertising expenses. And don't forget to go to SERVICES, to register yourself or your loved one for assistance in locating a contact companion.