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Combating Loneliness in the Elderly During the Coronavirus Outbreak

It was recently announced by the UK Government that, in light of the recent coronavirus outbreak, all people over the age of 70 as well as those with serious underlying health conditions are required to socially distance themselves. While this is a vital step towards preventing the spread of the virus, it is crucial that we do what we can to lessen the negative effects of loneliness and social isolation at this time.

We regularly post coronavirus updates for residents, relatives and friends on the Westgate website. Check our News and Events page for the latest news.

What is Social Isolation?

Social isolation is described as a lack of contact between an individual and society. In the current situation of national lockdown, social isolation is being enforced by the government as a way to stop the transmission of COVID-19 to those who are most likely to suffer severely from the illness. This in itself is not negative; the problem is that people who have no social interaction are more likely to experience loneliness. 

The effects of social isolation on health

While scientists and researchers scramble to better understand the ways in which the coronavirus affects the body, we have a very clear understanding of the ways in which social isolation and loneliness affect our health.

Those who do not feel sufficiently connected to others and are deprived of social contact are more likely to:

  • have weaker immune systems and catch colds
  • develop dementia
  • develop cardiovascular disease
  • live shorter lives

Source: Age UK

In fact, it has been estimated that the long-term harm caused by social isolation and loneliness is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or to being obese.

Those experiencing social isolation and loneliness are at a much higher risk of developing depression and social anxiety, as many aspects of social interaction such as smiling, laughing or simply moving about release chemicals in the brain that heighten our sense of wellbeing.

Social isolation and loneliness in the elderly

Under normal circumstances the elderly are more likely to suffer from social isolation and loneliness; they may be less mobile than they once were, their friends may pass away and they may not be in the same habit of digital communication that younger people are. According to Age UK in 2016, there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK, and half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all.

Coronavirus and loneliness

With the government asking over-70s and those with serious pre-existing health conditions to self-isolate for up to 12 weeks, it is more important than ever that we do what we can to combat loneliness in the elderly. However, many of the existing initiatives put on for older people – some of which you can read about in this blog post – are not possible under the self-isolation guidelines.

So what can we do?

Social Support for Loved Ones in a Care Home

We take the health of our residents extremely seriously, which is why we have made the following difficult decisions in light of the pandemic:

  •  We have suspended all non-essential visits to all of our care homes 
  •  We have postponed all non-essential external trips for our residents to limit their exposure to coronavirus within the wider community

Our staff are working extremely hard to keep residents healthy and happy within each care home, and encouraging safe levels of social interaction in a sanitised environment overseen by medical and care staff.

Video calls

However, now more than ever it is important that our residents are bolstered by seeing a familiar friendly face. We are encouraging them – and you, their family and friends – to regularly use video call apps such as Skype and Facetime to keep in touch with loved ones. Not only will this reassure you that they are healthy, but will also provide them with a much-needed link to the outside world and give them the chance to talk about their day. 

It’s also important to remember that the current social isolation measures may be in place for many months. If you have young children, try to include them in video calls so that your older relatives don’t feel as if they are missing out on watching them grow. 

St Pauls resident Brian celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife Christine in March. Unfortunately she couldn’t be there in person, but she sent a wonderful cake for him to enjoy and the couple were able to have a Facetime session to share the happy day. 

The art of letter writing

Like many other care homes up and down the country, we are also encouraging people to write and post handwritten letters to our residents. It’s a fun and novel activity for children who are housebound during the lockdown, and a great source of joy for residents who may not have received a handwritten letter for years. In many cases, getting a letter has been a great way to jog memories and start conversations.

We are thrilled that many people – even those with no relatives at a Westgate care home – have sent us cards and drawings to brighten the day of anyone who sees them.

If there is a likelihood that someone in your household has contracted or come into contact with coronavirus, we suggest that you send an email rather than a physical letter in order to reduce the risk of transmission. Emails will be printed out and read to your loved ones if required, so you can be sure that they will receive your message.

Together We Can Keep Your Loved Ones Safe

Although social distancing is a challenge for children, working adults and the elderly alike, the government’s restrictions are in place to keep vulnerable people safe during this health crisis. We thank you for your support and understanding during this time.

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