The current situation with the Covid 19 pandemic is bringing the issue of loneliness and social isolation to the fore, as people of all ages express concerns about self-isolation. For some people, older adults and those with underlying health conditions, the prospect of facing the possibility of self-isolating for months.
This is a worrying time for all of us, with concerns around the health of loved ones but also with concerns around experiencing loneliness. Loneliness is something we have heard a lot about in recent years and the narrative around loneliness may be raising additional concerns around the impact on our health and wellbeing. I will try to address some of these concerns and highlight ways we can help ourselves and others in this difficult time.
Loneliness comes in many forms. There is the transient feeling of loneliness (loneliness that comes and goes) that many of us will have experienced in new situations such as starting a new job or going to university, or just when we have time alone and everyone else seems to be busy. Then we have chronic loneliness, that constant feeling of loneliness that doesn’t go away. Loneliness can be triggered by many things, particularly around major life changes; e.g. becoming a mum, retirement, bereavement, onset of illness or disability, caring responsibilities.
For most people who come into contact with Covid 19, self-isolating may increase feelings of loneliness temporarily, but it will be highly unlikely to have any lasting impact on your physical health. Although you may find you experience some changes in your mood, these will pass once the restrictions have lifted. However, for those individuals who may live alone, or who have underlying health conditions and who are more at risk of chronic loneliness, self-isolation may be a very frightening prospect. In the last few days I have had conversations with many people who are in that situation, individuals who live alone who are fearful of working from home because of the effect that isolation will have on their mental health, those who are already lonely and isolated and those individuals who rely on groups and social activities to ward off those feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Yet, there are things we can do to help ourselves, and those around us.
What we can do as individuals if we are self-isolating?
One of the coping strategies lonely older adults who participated in my research used to manage feelings of loneliness was to engage in activities to distract them from loneliness. Some older people used their loneliness in creative ways, engaging in arts and crafts, and music. This may be an opportunity to develop a project you may have been putting off, to take up a hobby that you haven’t had time to do because of other pressures. Solitary activities such as reading, listening to music or audio books, and gardening can all help distract temporarily from those feelings of loneliness.
We know that so-called blue and green spaces are good for the wellbeing of people of all ages, helping reduce depression and promote a sense of wellbeing. If you have access to a car and are symptom free go visit a local park or a National Trust garden, many are open and free during this crisis. If you can’t get out, it is important, regardless of whether you have a blue or green space to look out on, to make time to go outside in the fresh air, even if that is just to sit on a balcony or by an open window. Don’t underestimate the power of the view from your window, as research by our own Dr Musselwhite found.
Don’t be afraid to reach out and tell someone you feel lonely. There is no shame in needing other people in our lives, and it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you, you haven’t failed in any way. Loneliness is a result of circumstances, especially now with many of us physically distancing ourselves from out friends and families. Support those in self-isolation.
There are things we can all do to support people who have to self-isolate. We can talk to our neighbours over the garden wall, phone a friend who we know is alone or who is caring for someone. Reach out to those in your immediate vicinity, there are beautiful examples of individuals doing just that during this crisis. Neighbours who are dropping cards off to vulnerable people offering to get shopping, medication or just a friendly ear for a chat.
Time and these small acts of kindness can go a long way for someone experiencing loneliness and it can help individuals who are self-isolating to know they are not alone. We may not be able to be physically in contact with people but we can all check in with neighbours, family and friends.
The recent floods in South Wales demonstrated the power of communities to support each other through difficult times. This is one of those times and as communities we know who is vulnerable, and who may need help. Across the country, grassroots groups are popping up on social media, galvanising support, and also hearing from individuals needing help. There are virtual book and film clubs popping up, and virtual coffee mornings.
Under current restrictions many social groups and activities will be closing until further notice, but there may be ways of keeping in touch with group members, particularly if the groups support individuals who are lonely or isolated. This may be via technology or phoning to check on people. If you are working from home, how about using technology to link to colleagues to socialise rather than for just another meeting. That is something that we, as a team at the Centre for Innovative Ageing and Centre for Ageing and Dementia Research, are looking at. We are also looking at ways we can support older adults, and help keep them connected. One idea is to explore ways of connecting care homes using technology, so that residents can connect with each other virtually and have a coffee morning or some other activity.
However, it is important that we don’t forget those with no access to technology. It takes two minutes to check on someone we know locally to see if they are ok or if they need anything. We don’t have to get physically close to them to check up on them and have a quick chat. If we are going shopping, we can check if anyone else needs anything. We can use the telephone to have a virtual coffee, talk about books, films or latest storyline on your favourite soap. It will be the little things that will get us through this current crisis.
Most importantly is to remember this situation will be short-lived for most people. Once the crisis has passed, it will be important to remember that for some individuals life will have changed and that the support and kindness we offer now will be just as important then.
Be kind, check on each other, but also look after your own physical and mental health and stay safe.
If you are over 70 and live alone Age Cymru have a check in and chat service. Register with Age Cymru free of charge on 08000 223 444 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and receive a call in English or Welsh.