Ahead of our upcoming event on loneliness in lockdown and beyond, Kate Jopling, an Independent Consultant with the Campaign to End Loneliness, looks at how communities are addressing loneliness in lockdown and what lies ahead.
Last week was Loneliness Awareness Week – an opportunity to draw attention to loneliness and to break down the stigma around it. This year, though, it feels like awareness of loneliness is already high. The enforced separation of COVID-19 lockdown has given many more of us a glimpse into the lives of those who experience loneliness and isolation.
However, in reality, the impact of the pandemic on levels of loneliness has been less dramatic than expected. Levels of chronic loneliness (those who say they are often or always lonely) remain in line with those observed pre-COVID.
‘Lockdown loneliness’ does appear to be a particular issue for 16-24 year-olds.
So, what is going on? No one really knows, but if we consider the nature of loneliness, we see some potential explanations.
Loneliness is defined as a subjective, unwelcome feeling, which happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want. It’s linked to isolation, but one doesn’t always follow the other. How we think and feel about our relationships and our expectations also make a big difference.
One reason we haven’t seen a significant increase in the levels of loneliness among older people may be because some are experiencing fewer changes in their levels of connection, than those young people who have suddenly had to return to live at home and seen plans for their spring and summer cancelled. Our coping skills and resilience also impact how lonely we feel. Perhaps again, older people are advantaged by being able to draw on experience that teaches them that hard times eventually pass, or that they can manage periods spent on their own.
Another possibility is that community responses have been effective in holding back the tides of loneliness. As voluntary sector organisations work in partnership with GPs to support those who are shielding, they are connecting with people with whom they have previously had no contact. Armies of volunteers are making weekly phone calls to lonely individuals and over 3000 mutual aid groups have sprung into action. Resources that were once only available in certain local areas are now available online, accessible to people right across the country. As a result, some people report feeling more connected than usual to their communities, perhaps compensating for the lack of face–to–face time with loved ones.
But what might happen next? We know a lot about the kinds of support people need to emerge from loneliness. It’s important that we start thinking now about how these needs will be met in the next phase, when many of those who have been volunteering may need to return to work, and voluntary and community sector organisations may no longer be able to offer support.
A particular concern is what will happen to those who continue to need to isolate while others return to something closer to normality. There is a strong correlation between risk factors for loneliness and the groups being advised to continue to distance. We must take particular care to ensure that we do not leave these groups further behind.
We also need to address inequalities – loneliness is strongly correlated with poverty, so poorer communities, where there is some evidence that network of mutual aid groups may be thinner and where the voluntary and community sector tends to be weaker, will need extra support.
Making plans for tackling loneliness beyond lockdown is vital. The evidence is clear that loneliness harms both mental and physical health and leads to higher use of health and care services, bringing with it substantial cost.
Furthermore, for the significant minority (many millions of individuals) who are lonely in lockdown, the situation remains serious. Loneliness grinds us down, eroding our social skills and confidence. People who are lonely are more likely to perceive threat in social situations. So, as we emerge from lockdown, people will need support to reengage.
Fortunately, work is already underway to capture and build upon what we’ve learnt through this crisis. The Campaign to End Loneliness’ work on Loneliness in the time of COVID-19 is bringing together experts from across the loneliness community to share learning and identify the challenges ahead, and the Connection Coalition is bringing organisations together across sectors to build upon the renewed sense of connection in our communities.
Register to attend a panel discussion on this topic, hosted by Local Trust in partnership with Campaign to End Loneliness.