2020-04-1

Loneliness and Covid-19: Social Distancing Versus Social Isolation

Peter A. Bath, Information School and School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield shares his thoughts on the current Covid-19 crisis and the impact it will have on loneliness and social isolation.

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In the current Covid-19 pandemic the government is mandating that we stay at home to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus and only go out for very limited reasons, e.g., shopping for essential supplies, for medical needs and to exercise once a day. Even then, we have to take social distancing measures and reduce our interaction with other people, for example, keeping at least 2m apart from others. Furthermore, people with serious health conditions are being urged not to go out for 12 weeks and people with symptoms are required to self-isolate and not go out at all. These important precautions will help reduce the spread of the virus, and protect vulnerable people, but it also runs the risk of making people feel more isolated and lonely.

In an age in which there is “an epidemic of loneliness”, the changes we are making in our lives to halt the Coronavirus pandemic are increasing the risk of the epidemic of loneliness spreading, especially among more vulnerable groups. And ‘vulnerable’ here means people who are both more susceptible to the Coronavirus and who are prone to feeling lonely. Older people and people with long-term health problems are among the groups who are being encouraged to stay at home to avoid catching Covid-19, but they are also at greater risk of being lonely and becoming even more socially isolated.

Our research at the University of Sheffield analysed data from a large cohort study of older people (aged 50 and over) from across England, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). The people who took part in this study have been followed up numerous times over many years, so that we were able to develop a picture of the patterns of loneliness among older people over time.

What we found was that in each of the waves data of collection, there was a broadly consistent proportion of the people who reported some degree of being lonely, this varied from 29% to 32%. However, on the positive side, this also means that around 68%-71% were not lonely at any one time point. When we looked at people who took part in each of the seven waves of the study, we noticed that a similar proportion of people, about 69%, never reported having felt lonely in the previous week. Conversely, a small minority (1%) reported having been lonely in the previous week in every single wave. The remainder (about 30%) reported having been lonely in one or more of the waves of the study: some of these were not only at the start of the study and became lonely in later waves, others were lonely at the start of the study and later stopped being lonely, and the others fluctuated in their loneliness over the study duration.

So what can we learn from this that could help in the current Coronavirus pandemic? First, for the small number of older people who have persistent feelings of loneliness there is a danger that they might feel even more socially isolated with the current restrictions and advice on leaving the house: this may lead to higher levels of depression with further knock-on effects on health and well-being. For older people who experience loneliness from time to time,  the reduced social contact and limited time outside of the house and home may make them more susceptible to loneliness. And, for the majority of older people, i.e., those who have never experienced loneliness, there is also a risk that the current restrictions might trigger a change and they may feel lonely for the first time in their lives.    

While this may feel like doom and gloom, thinking about the possible consequences of the current restrictions and advice can help to stimulate thinking on how we can help and support vulnerable older people at the present time. Additionally, for many, loneliness is transient and interventions for supporting lonely people may be effective in reducing social isolation, whilst still maintaining the social distancing. And don’t forget, people are remarkably resilient and crises like the current, and unprecedented, Coronavirus pandemic can bring out the best in individuals and can galvanise communities. Already we have seen great examples of individuals supporting their elderly neighbours, doing shopping or collecting medicines for them, and community-based initiatives to offer help with day-to-day tasks or a friendly phone call. Thankfully, as well, modern technologies, such as mobile technologies and software and apps that enable online face-to-face communication, are enabling people to keep in touch in troubled times. Being mindful of the people in our society who are vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus and to being lonely, and supporting them where we can, is important in ensuring that these people who are socially distancing themselves do not become socially isolated.


This article is authored by Peter A. Bath, Information School and School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield on 1st April 2020.