It’s hard to picture yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Some people skip through life but others drag their feet. A first-year college student, for instance, might feel painfully lonely despite going to Diceys with friends for a few pints (back when we could). A sibling surrounded by family and chocolate cake on their birthday might feel lonely, despite seeming usually happy. Loneliness is a common human emotion which for each person is both complex and distinctive. The prevention and treatment of this potentially harmful state of mind will vary dramatically because it has no single common cause. Worldwide loneliness is an epidemic and in Ireland, it’s not just young people being affected by COVID-19 isolation.
Psychologist Julianne Holt-alarming Lunstad’s study shows that isolation and low social interactions are as harmful to you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and are likely to increase your chance of death by 29%. Experts say it’s not the amount of social contact that battles loneliness, but it’s the quality. The percentage of people with no close friends in the U.S. has tripled since 1985. The growth of the internet and social media, ironically, is largely to blame. Loneliness leads individuals to feel empty, isolated, and unwanted. Loneliness is not simply about being isolated, it’s about feeling isolated due to a lack of meaningful social interactions. The Jo Cox Committee on Isolation was set up after the death of MP Jo Cox in 2016 to continue her work in the U.K. The government appointed a Minister for loneliness. In Ireland, we don’t have a Minister for loneliness but we share similar challenges with the U.K. during lockdown.
In 2020, ALONE, the group that supports senior people, saw a rise in the number of callers expressing depressive thoughts, with even more people registering feelings of social isolation. ALONE also identified a spike in a wide variety of mental health effects, while acknowledging that the COVID-19 protocols are in effect to deter the transmission of COVID-19. Data included by ALONE and The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) in July 2020 in the Loneliness and Social Isolation in the COVID-19 Pandemic among the over 70s report found that one-third of those aged 50 and older feel lonely at least some of the time. The analysis also found that among over-75s and those living alone, isolation is more prevalent. The ALONE Support and Telephone Befriending service continued remotely with volunteers following the spread of the virus, but more support for over 70s feeling lonely is needed.
Not all is lost. Loneliness can be conquered. On your part, it does take a deliberate commitment to make a change. In the long run, making a change will make you happy, healthier, and encourage you to have a positive mindset. Think about volunteering or doing a hobby you enjoy remotely. These scenarios offer perfect opportunities for meeting others and developing new friendships and social experiences (even if it’s just on Zoom for the moment). Focus on building relationships of quality with individuals that share common interests with you. It’s easier said than done but at least trying to combat loneliness is better than doing nothing at all. Most importantly, think about the elders around you that are prone to isolation, particularly older people without family or living independently. Offer to do their grocery shopping if they’re self-isolating or call them regularly to catch up.
Social isolation is more common than ever, and increasingly we are classifying it as a severe health problem which is a step in the right direction. What seems overwhelming now, like starting a conversation at a bus stop or in line for coffee, may have lifelong benefits and brighten someone else’s day. A smile or a chat costs nothing. We never know what’s going on in other people’s private lives so asking friend’s you haven’t talked to in a while how they are is an easy way to start a conversation about loneliness. Elderly men and women especially need support during COVID-19 so let’s remember to wave, smile and lend a helping hand until and after we’re back to normal — whatever ‘normal’ is to you.
Contact ALONE on 0818 222 024 if you have concerns about your own wellbeing or the wellbeing of an older person you know. Further information can be found on www.alone.ie.