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Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and the loneliness epidemic together

Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and the loneliness epidemic together

Peter A. Bath, Information School and School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the current advice from the government is that we should all be taking social distancing measures and reducing our interaction with other people as much as possible to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Some groups in particular, for example, people aged 70 and over and those with long-term health problems, are being asked to limit their contact with friends and family to protect themselves. Whilst it is good that this can help reduce the spread of the virus, and protect vulnerable people, it also runs the risk of making people feel more isolated and lonely. 

We live in an age in which there is what has been called “an epidemic of loneliness”. Older people and those with long-term health problems are not only more vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19, but they are also at risk of being lonely. We have carried out research at the University of Sheffield on a large study of older people from across England, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). We found that around 30% of these people typically felt lonely at various time points over a 15-year period. What we found particularly interesting was that while some of the older people said they were never lonely, many were lonely at least at one time point during the study, and a few were lonely every single time. So, some people appear to be persistently lonely, and others fluctuate in their feelings of loneliness over time. Clearly then, the current advice from the Government, while trying to stop vulnerable people from catching the disease, may result in yet more people feeling isolated and lonely.

So what can we do to support people who are self-isolating, and may feel lonely at this time? First, we can look out for our neighbours who are elderly or who may be ill. We can pop round and, while keeping the recommended 2 metres away, check that they are ok, have a chat and see if they need any shopping, or they need any medicines or a letter to post. You can always put a note through the door with your telephone number and house number on and invite them to give you a call if they need anything, or would just fancy a chat. Already, in Sheffield, people are organizing support for local people who are self-isolating. The Crookes Mutual Aid group are putting notes through doors offering to help people with day-to-day tasks, like shopping, dog walking or just a friendly phone call (see their Facebook page for further details). Garden gigs are being set up in one street in Sheffield, in which musicians are taking their instruments outside and playing them for the entertainment of local people who are self-isolating in their houses, similar to people in Italy playing music and singing to each other from their balconies. I am sure these ideas can develop further and spread across our city. 

While the Coronavirus outbreak may feel like doom and gloom, there are ways that we can help and support people who are stuck inside and may be feeling lonely. Perhaps we can use this an opportunity to get to know our neighbours better, grow our local communities and reduce the epidemic of loneliness in today’s society.

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