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Will anyone miss me if I’m not there?

Experiencing Loneliness and Social Isolation

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This month, many people will have seen the heartbreaking BBC story about ‘the man who talked to chairs’ in his desperate loneliness. Anyone who has experienced life events, as he did, such as the unexpected withdrawal of employment or bereavement from the death of a much loved parent, will have experienced the pain and grief of intense loss and the enormous difficulties of coming to terms with this even when good personal support is close and readily available.

Closeness is very important. A number of research surveys have recently laid out the large and growing numbers of people within UK society, from all ages and backgrounds, who have also already faced their own unsought situations of desperate loneliness. Added to these individuals, thanks to Covid19, there are now many more who have totally unexpectedly, and without any prior preparation, been forced to withdraw for many months from almost all normal everyday face to face social activities and contacts.

Having suddenly found myself having to remain in an almost totally shielded household since March because of my husband’s health needs, it has shed a totally unsought and unwanted, but nevertheless increasingly fruitful, light for me on loneliness and social isolation. The very full and interesting lives, both professionally and personally, which we were both enjoying, immediately shrank to the four walls of our home and the unremitting (despite being enjoyable!) 24 hour company of one another. The much valued arrival each week of a supermarket delivery driver was, in many weeks, our sole opportunity to pass a few words directly (and even then at several metres distance), with another human being.

We came to recognise the true significance and value of direct contact with others (such as touch) and the inability in the virtual world of Zoom and Skype (whatever all their other merit) of being able to pick up on the many physical cues and emotional responses which one doesn’t even think about in ‘normal’ face to face meetings with friends and family as well as in work. Recent physiological research has even apparently demonstrated that our eye pupils can change in emotional response to others.

We found that not more than one conversation can successfully take place at the same time within an online group – unlike so many normal family get-togethers with most of us talking at once to one another! The limitations became particularly evident in talking to younger children – no opportunity to really physically get down to their level for example, or to directly engage the attention of the new baby in the family.

Our shielded experience also brought home to us our increasing feeling of lack of control over so many areas of our daily lives. Things which would have seemed really simple previously, like taking a small birthday parcel for our youngest granddaughter to the Post Office, became impossible (and although we tried to weigh and post it, in good time, from home it then went backwards and forwards between start and destination so she didn’t actually receive it for more than two months – but that’s another story.....).

We have nevertheless been very fortunate in the resources we have available to us to cope with our current situation, and particularly in being a shared household so that at least we’re both in this together - even though we do seem to be living in a parallel universe to most other people! However although this is an area of life which I and others, within NDTi’s many projects over recent years, have worked hard in to develop helpful and effective social policies helping to address individuals’ loneliness and social isolation, lived experience inevitably adds a sharper and perhaps more focused knowledge and understanding to the many issues involved.

We know that both the physical and emotional effects of loneliness on individuals can be devastating. Self-belief and self-esteem can be corrosively destroyed over time. Depression and anxiety can lead to strokes, heart attacks and even ultimately premature death. Suicide risks and various forms of other self-harming, such as drug (including prescription drugs), inappropriate self-medication, and alcohol dependence, can result from intense loneliness. A sometimes overlooked factor in loneliness can be the inability to simply prioritise any time or energies for self, for example as a carer.

The most recent NDTi project which I worked on evaluated the lottery funded Ageing Better Isle of Wight programme, with a major aim of these new projects and schemes being to tackle social isolation and loneliness on the Island in older people. Perhaps one of the most important things we learnt from our IOW work though, particularly through our many interviews with older people themselves, is that loneliness has a totally individual meaning for every person. One person’s enjoyable solitude is another’s isolation, and one individual’s satisfaction in being part of a group is another’s loneliness within a crowd (some of the loneliest people I ever interviewed were men living in predominantly female care homes). So we found that it is particularly important to be able to offer a very wide range of choices which may combat loneliness, with opportunities to talk just one to one or with others, make friendships, follow up pre-existing interests or start new ones, join in group activities, be able to help others as a befriender or by contributing to the community as a whole, using the telephone, the computer, or simply making face to face contact.

Whilst the eventual route out of loneliness for some may be finally getting access to a vaccine against Covid, for others, as we found in the IOW evaluation , it may mean first gaining essential support for mental health needs, debt or financial limitations, or addressing practical issues of mobility. Whatever the route though it all comes back in the end to gaining an understanding of each individual’s patterns of wishes and needs.

Author: Sylvia Barker

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