Tackling loneliness through friendship, comfort and support
The Coronavirus pandemic has been incredibly difficult for everyone and one of the hardest elements has been its impact on mental health and wellbeing.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, levels of loneliness among older people were already too high and were considered a public health crisis. Previously our research had found that more than 100,000 older people in Scotland felt lonely all or most of the time, the equivalent of one older person on every street in Scotland. Furthermore, 200,000 older people would go at least half a week without seeing or hearing from anyone, with their TV or pet being their main form of company.
When considering the scale of the problem we were already facing it’s heart-breaking to then take into account the impact the last year has had. Surveys carried out between May and July 2020 found that between 53-59% of people of all ages in Scotland felt lonely some/most/almost all or all of the time.
Recent research undertaken by the University of Stirling has demonstrated that social distancing introduced in response to COVID-19 has increased feelings of loneliness among older people in Scotland and impacting their wellbeing.The study also highlighted that 40% said they were walking less compared to before lockdown, and a similar proportion were engaging in less moderate physical activity. Those whose physical activity was lower had poorer levels of wellbeing.
Margaret Foley, 76, is a widow who lives alone in Glasgow. She explains what receiving a Friendship Call from Age Scotland volunteer Alice means to her.
I’ve certainly shed a few tears in the last weeks and have been feeling uptight and anxious. I’ve lived alone since I lost my husband, John, six years ago to cancer. We were married for nearly 50 years and I really miss him. My son’s family is self-isolating because he has very bad asthma. I can only speak to them on the phone because my computer broke three weeks ago. It’s nice to hear their voices but it’s heartbreaking not being able to see my two grandchildren.
Most of my friends have passed away, too, so I’ve been feeling very alone and Covid-19 has just compounded that loneliness. I’m high risk because I have diabetes and COPD. I called the number for Age Scotland after I saw it on a letter from the Scottish Government. Two days later, I got another call from Alice. It was lovely to hear her voice and for someone to take the time to find out how I was doing. I liked that we could talk about things that weren’t about the virus. It gave me a chance to forget about all that for a while. It was nice to get that call because I did feel very alone. I don’t like living by myself right now.
Levels of loneliness among care homes residents has also been significant, with many care homes, if not all, severely restricting how family and friends can interact with their loved ones. The impact this has had on health and wellbeing cannot be understated. Hearing family members talk of the noticeable deterioration in the condition of their loved one and that they feel they are slipping away before them is heart-breaking. A year on we’ve welcomed the latest guidance which will allow for more indoor visiting as a big step forward.
Age Scotland's response
In response to the pandemic, we implemented a virtual call centre to ensure our helpline which provides free information, friendship, and advice could function remotely with advisers working from home. As everyone began to make sense of the new lockdown restrictions we saw a huge surge in the number of people calling our helpline. In an effort to handle this increase we reassigned the majority of Age Scotland’s staff to either take calls from older people or to support the helpline. Considering the fact that half a million over 60s in Scotland don’t use the internet we recognised just how important it is to have information and support that is available over the phone not restricted to just online.
In June we launched our new friendship line, aiming to help tens of thousands of older people feeling increasingly isolated and lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic. We followed this initiative with our phone-based health and wellbeing friendship circles, running throughout the winter months to support those looking for more information about staying active and well and to make new connections.
In an effort to provide practical help to smaller community groups who are struggling financially, we have been able to offer small one-off grant payments. This was to assist members who are withstanding the damaging impacts of this pandemic, and to help them to continue delivering vital activities and service in our urban, rural and island communities.
The closure of in-person community groups has been a significant blow to many people who are now more isolated than ever before. We need to see a serious funding commitment that will support community groups to re-open and meet again when this is possible. As we continue to live with COVID-19 community groups also need tailored guidance which allows them to adapt how they operate where possible, recognising that many of these groups are volunteer led and don’t have paid staff to carry out risk assessments. This is essential to allow groups to meet safely while they try to alleviate people’s experience of loneliness.
The Scottish Government’s strategy, A Connected Scotland: Tackling Social Isolation and Loneliness was seen as world leading when it was first published and must be supported by continued funding from the Scottish Government. Focused support and leadership is needed to ensure its aims are delivered.
Tackling loneliness and isolation requires joint working across multiple different sectors. Local authorities and Health and Social Care Partnerships, should work with the voluntary sector, local businesses, faith groups and other relevant sectors of the community to ensure services reach lonely people in their area.
We can beat loneliness and we must tackle this issue head on. That’s why Age Scotland is calling for an Older People’s commissioner to stand up for older people, who will have the power to hold public bodies to account where necessary.