Mentally aware - shining a light on loneliness and isolation as we come out of lockdown

Katey Twyford
Katey Twyford
External Research Associate at the Centre for Loneliness Studies (University of Sheffield), and Housing LIN Associate (Co-lead for Dementia and Housing)

Before the onslaught of the current Coronavirus pandemic, 5% of people of all ages in the UK said they always or often felt lonely [1]. And since 23 March 2020, ‘lockdown’ has been imposed in the UK to minimise the impact of Coronavirus, to save the NHS and to protect lives. But the social distancing and self-isolation involved in the lockdown is likely to have exposed more people to loneliness and to have worsened its affects among those already lonely, including people’s mental health and wellbeing.

We were told in government COVID-19 guidelines (opens new window) [2] that we must only go out for food, health reasons or work, that if we go out we must stay two metres away from other people at all times, and that we cannot meet others, even friends or family. The instruction to stay at home has prompted wide-spread discussion about staying fit and healthy when isolated, and the housing sector has responded positively to the unprecedented demands of the lockdown by sharing of all sorts of advice and best practice. However, it is not just about addressing physical health, but also looking after the state of our mental health. The Mental Health Foundation reported that almost a quarter of adults living under lockdown in the UK have felt lonely [3].  

Professor David Robinson of the University of Sheffield and UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (opens new window) [4] said that the Coronavirus pandemic is exposing us all to hardships that many people face every day. Concerns have been expressed about how people living on their own will cope with isolation and loneliness. It has also been pointed out that for many people home is not a place of comfort, safety or security. These are familiar challenges for many older people in the UK.

The 2018 Office of National Statistics (opens new window) [5] reported that

  • Renters reported feeling lonely more often than homeowners.
  • People who feel that they belong less strongly to their neighbourhood reported feeling lonely more often.
  • People who have little trust of others in their local area reported feeling lonely more often.

Long term loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems including depression anxiety and increased stress [6].  

The specialist housing with care sector have long tried to minimise the impact of loneliness for these groups of people, which has come into sharper focus during the Coronavirus pandemic. The Housing LIN has contributed to discussion with recent blogs building more resilient networks to combat loneliness and isolation about the need to be connected [7] and how everybody needs good neighbours [8].  

Last year as part of Dementia Action Week specialist housing schemes across the UK provided examples of activities to prevent unwanted isolation and loneliness for people with dementia living in housing with care [9]. The resulting Housing LIN compendium provides a great resource to help minimise loneliness, but the Coronavirus has required us to rethink our approaches.  We have all had to adapt to provide non face-to-face based interactions to ensure we can continue offering help.  

For example, at one Guinness Care extra care scheme staff took an innovative approach to having an Easter bonnet parade during the lockdown period. Katy Sara of Guinness Care explained:

Residents were still able to create Easter bonnets. They left their bonnets outside their doors ready for staff to collect.  Staff wore the bonnets and walked around the outside of the scheme (following social distancing guidance) for the customers to see. At the end of the parade, customers were able to vote for the best design.

Across the country on the news we have seen how hospitals, care homes and housing schemes have increased the use of digital technology to help people to connect with each other. But not everyone is able to access it, and there is a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of remote social contact and its ability to stave off loneliness.

As I write this blog, it will be Mental Health Awareness week 18-24 May and the Government is preparing to share with the nation how the country might ease its way out of the Coronavirus lockdown. We don’t know what kind of ‘new normal’ will emerge, but one positive might be a greater understanding of the realities of loneliness and unwanted social isolation for residents in specialist housing and the impact on their mental health. Link that with our experience of just what can be achieved when we collectively respond to overcome the practical and emotional difficulties faced by housing residents, then we should have a lasting legacy that could positively change the way we support lonely and socially isolated people in the future. The Coronavirus has shined a spotlight on the many acts of kindness and humanity that we have shown each other during the lockdown period to help to alleviate loneliness and isolation. This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness week is kindness; let’s continue to be kind to each other as we emerge from lockdown into our new ‘normal’.

The Housing LIN has recently responded to the All Party Parliamentary Group loneliness inquiry (opens new window). We are keen to work with organisations to share best practice on different ways to maintain social contact and help prevent people becoming lonely and/or promote their mental wellbeing. Use our discussion forum to share your experiences of best practice, and watch out for future calls for evidence of what works well.

For more about COVID-19 and housing, visit the Housing LIN’s Coronavirus Info Hub and read their practice briefings. These explore what the pandemic mean for the operation of housing with care or specialist housing schemes.

 

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