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Tackling loneliness in older people – post-lockdown and beyond

Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance
12 August 2020

In the wake of lockdown, we perhaps understand now more than ever the effects of feeling lonely. The situation plunged many people into isolation, leaving them unable to see friends and family, especially those shielding or living alone.

Loneliness in older people has been a concern in the community long before the pandemic hit. And unfortunately, many of the programmes designed to help, such as group activities, have had to be stopped. So it’s important to look at how we move forward in our changed world, and make sure that older adults who are experiencing loneliness aren’t left behind.

The health impact of loneliness on older people

Research has found that loneliness in older people is associated with several health problems. For example, loneliness has a similar risk for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The health risks are also comparable to being obese, having high blood pressure, and not exercising. It’s also been linked to depression and dementia and being less able to fight infection.

Bearing in mind that people are social creatures, it’s no surprise that when we become deprived of regular human contact, the effects can be huge.

Adapting care for those who are lonely

Some of the ways social workers and carers have adapted during this time include delivering care via virtual services, such as video calls. Many places have offered daily telephone calls to offer reassurance, news updates and infection prevention advice, as well as organising home delivery services.

Local communities have stepped up too, to help those who are isolated or lonely. Whether that’s dropping off shopping, picking up medication or phoning up for a friendly chat.

Six opportunities for tackling loneliness

Experts suggest there are several opportunities for tackling loneliness in the post-COVID world. Here are some of the innovative ways that some places have trialled, or that experts suggest could be on the horizon.

1. Developing loneliness specific assessment tools

There’s an opportunity to develop specific tools to quickly assess if someone is lonely or feels isolated. Like other questionnaires that can indicate depression or anxiety, it stands to reason that there could be a questionnaire to gauge loneliness and find out how at risk someone is. For example, questions might include: Are you lonely? Are you outgoing? Do you feel you have many friends? Tools like this could help people get the relevant help they need.

2. Redefining treatments and services

Services could build on existing treatments and services and collaborate with others to provide new and better services. For example – virtual sessions that incorporate evidence-based therapeutic elements such as mindfulness, laughter, reminiscence and gardening therapies. Other innovative options that have been suggested include activities like interactive photo sharing, playing party games and pairing cooks with isolated older adults – all over video.

In a recent case study, Helsinki university ran online weekly sessions over three months, including activities such as art, exercise and writing. They found that people reported increased wellbeing and lower levels of loneliness and isolation.

3. Bridging the gaps in the digital world

Another option is to make virtual communication more accessible to older adults. Computers, tablets and smart phones can all help older adults feel more connected and reduce loneliness. And it’s likely that the use of health robots and software like ‘Alexa’ may increase. But only if the technology is easy to use and is widely available.

Research has found that older adults who use the internet to connect and socialise reported lower levels of depression and better life satisfaction than those who didn’t. This was a study of 9,000 adults, aged over 50, recorded over a period of six years (2012-2017).

Video calls have really come into their own this year and can be a great way to keep in touch with people. As is keeping in touch via email. This guide from Age UK shows older adults how to make a video call.

Encouragingly, many older adults have become more comfortable with digital technology during lockdown. Even before the pandemic, research showed that 75 per cent of adults aged over 65 were going online every day. So going forward, this is an opportunity to build on and develop.

4. Virtual reality

Virtual reality could have potential for helping relieve loneliness, and some places have tried introducing this during the pandemic.

Virtual reality could work in a few different ways. For example, programs like Second Life, where the user creates an avatar of themselves and can interact with others in a virtual world. They might go to a dance party or go shopping, socialising with others who are like-minded. Participants who took part in a study reported feeling optimistic about making new social connections in this way. However, results were mixed about how valuable participants felt these online relationships were.

Other options are the creation of Virtual Humans (VHs), which can be assigned to a person to act as their customised 3D personal care assistant.

You can even have a virtual animal companion, such as a cat or a dog, who talks to the older adult via a tablet screen. The cat or dog is operated by trained remote workers.

VR interventions like this aren’t a substitute for real life human interaction, but they can be a supportive element to helping older people feel less isolated and lonely.

5. Building stronger intergenerational relationships

The pandemic has also seen a rise in younger people helping older people, either by offering regular social contact or more practical help such as buying and delivering shopping to them.

There are many community aid groups, such as Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, that have sprung up across the UK in response to the coronavirus. They are supporting people who can’t leave their homes and are unable to access supplies via friends and family.

6. Animal magic – real and robotic

For those who able to look after an animal, studies show that owning a cat or a dog can help alleviate loneliness through providing companionship. One study compared the effects of living with a living dog and a robotic dog. Both groups showed a decreased level of loneliness.

Final thoughts

It’s important to recognise that each person experiences loneliness differently and there are many factors that contribute. As such, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone. But it’s encouraging and important that the world is thinking differently about how we tackle loneliness in the older generation. We need to come up with initiatives and solutions that take all manner of needs into account.

Dr Luke James
Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance

    • Loneliness research. Campaign to End Loneliness. www.campaigntoendloneliness.org, accessed 7 August 2020
    • Hughes S, Warren-Norton K, Spadafora P, et al. Supporting Optimal Aging through the Innovative Use of Virtual Reality Technology. Multimodal Technologies Interact. 2017, 1(4), 23; doi:10.3390/mti1040023
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