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Chronic loneliness set to continue after Covid-19

A review by ten charities has found that some people over 65 are likely to remain at risk of chronic loneliness, despite the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

The Older People’s Task and Finish Group, which makes up part of the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport Tackling Loneliness Network, is co-chaired by Independent Age and the Alzheimer’s Society.

A briefing paper launched by the group combines new findings and existing research to shine a light on the feelings of people in later life who were already experiencing chronic loneliness before the pandemic, and the challenges they might face as restrictions ease.

In a survey conducted during the months when the UK went in and out of lockdown, people over 65, including those who were already accessing support services, were asked about loneliness and isolation:

  • 74% said they lacked companionship and felt left out often or some of the time
  • 82% said they felt isolated from others some of the time, or often
  • Almost 3 in 4 (74%) said they felt lonely at the time of the survey and 9% said they always felt lonely.

When asked how the pandemic had affected them:

  • 72% of respondents said their contact with organisations that they used to interact with before the pandemic had decreased.
  • 73% said that the Coronavirus pandemic has made them feel significantly or somewhat more lonely or isolated than they did before.

Almost one in four (23%) said they felt the same levels of loneliness as before the pandemic.

Given the high numbers reporting feeling lonely and isolated, the group says this relatively large proportion of people suggests that many were already experiencing significant levels of loneliness and isolation before the pandemic began.

Carol Jenkinson, 73, from Croydon, has lived alone since 2005 following the death of her brother Cyril.  

Due to health reasons, she hasn’t been able to leave the house for five years, but has support at home, including regular contact with an Independent Age volunteer.

She said: ‘Cyril and I never married or had children. We lived together until he died in 2005. There was just the two of us and we were very close, we went everywhere together.

‘It was a very difficult time when he died, I felt very alone. I carried on shopping but didn’t really go anywhere else. I couldn’t help feeling sad.

‘I’d be doing something and find myself welling up. I’d have a little cry, then move on, until it happened again. I knew Cyril would want me to manage and keep going, but underneath it was very hard. 

‘I still miss my brother just as much as ever to be honest. Every so often you crave someone else to talk to, or you have thoughts that you just want to be able to share with someone.

‘As my physical health started to deteriorate, I gradually got more support. When Independent Age contacted me and asked if I would like a visitor I said ‘yes.’ I was feeling low.

‘The pandemic has meant that some of this support has stopped or changed, including face to face visits and I do miss them. But for me, as we get back to normal, the most important thing isn’t the reopening of shops and pubs, but having someone to talk to once a week. It’s invaluable.

‘It broadens my mind, keeps it active. I can share things I enjoy with someone who understands what I’m talking about. It has been wonderful and enriches my life.’

Loneliness can be caused by a number of life circumstances, including experiencing bereavement, living on a low income and having mental or physical health problems.

Nearly one in three who have experienced partner bereavement report being very lonely4. Loneliness caused by grief is likely to soar with latest figures from Independent Age suggesting that up to 307,000 people over 65 have been bereaved of a partner during the last year.

Deborah Alsina, chief executive of Independent Age, said loneliness, social isolation, and living alone are also all associated with an increased risk of early death.

‘Loneliness is not, and should not be, an inevitable part of getting older, yet some people in later life are facing the compounded impact of loneliness and isolation, causing fear, anxiety, loss of hope and a mental health crisis.

‘Despite the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines, uncertain times lie ahead and many are deeply worried about what will happen over the coming months. The resilience of people in later life, and the volunteers and organisations who support them continues to be tested like never before.

‘For people who told us loneliness was not just a product of lockdowns and shielding, but a symptom of their everyday life before the pandemic, the easing of restrictions is not a silver bullet. It is vital that the views and needs of people in later life are acted on when it comes to the country’s COVID recovery.

‘As we emerge from the pandemic, the government must take forward learnings from Covid-19, prioritise funding of mental health support during the pandemic recovery and beyond, increase the support for those who have been bereaved, and work with others to raise awareness of the seriousness of loneliness and how people can get support.’

Photo Credit – Andreea Popa

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