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SECG Blog: Social isolation and loneliness in a global pandemic

Dr Jennifer Baldwin, SECG Communications Team

This photo of Jen’s daughter is a good illustration of ‘iso life’ with a toddler

Helen* is 89 years old. She lives on her own in a house on the Central Coast, a few streets from the ocean. She tells me about how every time it rains, she has to go out into her garden afterwards to hose the saltwater off her plants.

Helen’s plants are her most treasured possessions. She has no contact with her family, being the last survivor of nine children (eight brothers!), and she no longer sees her two sons or grandchildren (some she’s never met). Consequently, she pours her heart and soul into her garden.

“My plants are what keeps me going, love. I talk to them, you know; I’ll ask them ‘Do you need a drink?’ and I’ll go out and water them if they’re thirsty.”

I sit on my bed with my legs crossed (in the spot that gets the best reception so we can hear each other), holding the phone to my ear and looking out at Lake Macquarie sparkling in the winter sunshine. As I sip my cup of tea and listen to her stories about her beloved plants, I try and picture her garden in my mind.

I’ve never met Helen. I only know the sound of her voice – and she, mine.

Every week, for the past few months, I’ve called her on the phone for a chat. We were paired up together through the Red Cross companionship and social support program, and because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had to restrict our contact to phone-calls only.

The half an hour we speak is among the only human contact she receives all week, apart from her Monday morning handyman volunteer visits, a daily two-minute ‘are you alive’ phone-call and whatever incidental conversations she may have at her local supermarket or pharmacy (which I’m willing to bet she definitely has knowing how much she loves to chat!).

I can’t help but do the maths… half an hour with me, an hour or two with her other visitor, a few short conversations with strangers… that leaves over 100 hours in complete isolation, each week - month after month.

It strikes me that while the rest of us are experiencing the anguish of social isolation, perhaps for the first time during this global pandemic, her life has possibly changed very little. This is her reality.

Whenever I call, I check if it’s a good time for her to chat. Invariably I’m met with the same response; “Oh sure love, I’m here, I’m always here”. The TV is always audible in the background; she likes the company it brings.

The unprecedented circumstances of the past few months have given me a very brief and limited insight into what it might be like to experience social isolation on a daily basis. However, I’m lucky to live with a wonderful husband and (mostly wonderful) toddler, so I really have to stretch my imagination to think about what it would be like to be truly alone around the clock. But during my workdays, I’ve been at home on my own, and except for a short walk around the neighbourhood where I might have said ‘hello’ to one or two people, for virtually the first time in my life I’ve gone almost whole days without any human contact. It’s been a real shock to the system.

I have to marvel at the inner fortitude of people like Helen. Social isolation survival skills that many of us have had to scramble to learn for the first time - keep a daily schedule, set tasks for the day, find meaning in the little things, colour-code your sock drawer, etc - Helen has been a master of for years.

Here, it’s worth making the distinction between social isolation (being physically separate from other people – objectively observed) and loneliness (feeling sad or disconnected from the world – subjectively felt). One can be socially isolated but not lonely, and one can certainly feel lonely even when surrounded by other people.

It is little wonder that older people are particularly vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. Health conditions, mobility issues, losing loved ones, frailty, financial difficulties - all of these can hamper social connection.

In recognition of the vulnerability of older people during the coronavirus pandemic, the Morrison government recently announced a $6 million communications package to support older Australians and prevent social isolation and loneliness. The funding will mostly be allocated to Friend Line, a national telephone support service for older Australians similar to the service provided by the Red Cross with which I’m involved. A smaller proportion of the funding will be distributed through community organisations to provide at-risk older people with digital devices.

While this is certainly a welcome announcement, I can’t help but feel it provides a Band-Aid solution for a much, much deeper wound. We need to look further upstream and address the modifiable causes of social isolation and loneliness, including social determinants of health. Moreover, we need to question the core values of a society and a culture that leave Helen and thousands of other Australians so isolated.

Last week when we spoke, I mentioned to Helen the two jacaranda trees in my backyard and how I’m looking forward to our first November in this house to experience the magical purple blossoms. Helen replied with a story of her own about how she’d painstakingly nurtured a bonsai jacaranda tree (yes apparently that’s a thing) for 60 years, meticulously watering and pruning it to keep it under a metre high. A friend of hers came to visit and admired the little tree so much that Helen generously gifted it to her friend. Some months later, Helen inquired about the tree’s wellbeing, to which her friend replied, “Oh after it blossomed it sort of withered up and looked dead, so I threw it out.”

Sixty years! Can you imagine?! In the rubbish bin! I’m indignant at the ignorance and carelessness of her friend as I picture a beautiful little tree upended in someone’s garbage. But Helen laughs as she remembers. She’s got a marvellous sense of humour.

“You have to laugh about it love, that’s all you can do.”

06 August 2020

*not her real name

Jennifer is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity & Nutrition at the University of Newcastle with a clinical background in physiotherapy.

Jen is an early-career researcher with experience in clinical and observational studies in healthy ageing. Jen completed her PhD at the University of Sydney, for which she co-led a large observational study collecting normative reference data for neuromusculoskeletal outcome measures in 1000 healthy Australians (1000 Norms Project). Following a 2-year Postdoctoral Research Fellow position at the Auckland University of Technology - Centre for Active Ageing, she returned to Australia and settled in Newcastle.

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