Isolation has become a common experience since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. We have developed a common understanding of what it means to spend most of our time at home, with limited interactions with others, and a few other activities or hobbies that we might normally enjoy. For most of us, it gets more difficult over time. It is difficult to stay away from friends or family, to see community events and concerts canceled, to be unable to share a meal in a restaurant or to play sports with friends. It is difficult to learn and work from home (or not at all) and to adapt to the contactless world.
There is a good reason for this.
Spending time with loved ones and doing the things we enjoy most improves our mental health and general well-being.
While not ideal, most of us have taken advantage of technology to stay connected to the services we need and to each other. It allows us to work, connect and play differently. (Can you even imagine how we would be affected if this happened even 10-15 years ago ?!)
But there are still a lot of people behind; those who were already experiencing social isolation before the pandemic began are much less able to adapt to this physically distant world.
What is social isolation and who has it?
We all need relationships and friendships to get through tough times and give us something to hope for. But poverty, health or mental health problems, disabilities or language barriers can mean that it is difficult (or impossible) to develop and maintain these same relationships. Without these relationships, people feel lonely and may lack a sense of connection or belonging. They are missing opportunities and do not have the same access to the resources and relationships they need to live a good life.
Normally, there are community centers, programs and volunteers to help fill the gaps. In the days of COVID, community centers cannot provide in-person services, programs are cut or canceled, and volunteers face considerable restrictions in their work.
Isolation Affects Seniors
Seniors are a vulnerable group because they most often live alone, have additional health problems, do not always have close friends and family, and may have limited access or understanding of technology. Sure, many grandparents take care of their grandchildren regularly or connect via Zoom to take a fitness class – but many don’t use technology regularly, don’t know what kind of technology they need or just can’t afford it. The pandemic has made them more vulnerable than they have ever been. While before they may have joined friends to play cribbage, have lunch, or stroll through the mall, they are now stuck at home. Those with complex health needs or compromised immune systems rely on someone else for their errands, medication and supplies; miss out on those in-person interactions they might have had in one of these stores.
Isolation affects those with different or limited abilities
People with disabilities have often found themselves excluded because our communities are not always as inclusive as they could be. When people think of disabilities, they sometimes think of accessible parking, wheelchair ramps, accessible restrooms and other aspects of the built environment. But our new over-reliance on technology exposes people with disabilities to other challenges, such as when the media, digital communication and the technology of working from home do not meet their needs.
Very small changes can sometimes make a big difference – for example, you have probably noticed American Sign Language interpreters at many COVID-19 press briefings. It is important that people who are hard of hearing have access to the media during a pandemic – without it they would miss important health and safety information.
In addition, many organizations that support people with disabilities rely on volunteers to help provide their services. COVID-19 made this even more difficult – especially for volunteers who normally go to someone’s home. This one-on-one connection with a volunteer may have been the only thing one person was looking forward to, and now they are gone. Fortunately, additional funding is helping some organizations adapt to using tablets and computers to deliver virtual programming. While it’s not the same as a hug from a friend, a familiar face or voice can go a long way toward helping people feel less lonely.
Isolation Affects Low-Income People
If you live in poverty, Internet access is often a luxury. In the pre-COVID-19 era, the library was a place to seek refuge. Free internet, books, DVDs, food, programs, familiar and friendly faces – libraries can do a lot to provide social opportunities. But during the pandemic, many of these services were limited or not available at all. And while libraries are doing a fantastic job trying to do as much as they can for their communities, the entertainment and education options they provide are limited without access to the Internet.
Isolation is not always a visible problem
This is especially true for people who appear young and healthy, but who have mental health issues. One example is a new mom with depression or postpartum anxiety. Even if they have friends and family to support them, COVID-19 limits their contacts. They may not be able to leave their baby in the care of a grandparent to sleep for a few hours or meet other mothers to discuss their concerns and concerns.
For others living with mental illness, interacting with their peers in a safe environment helps build confidence and can help them cope with the stress they face. Unable to meet in person in a safe space, organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association have had to adapt – they offer care kits that include fun and relaxing activities similar to what they would offer in the part of their programs. Activity kits are especially important for those who do not have access to the Internet.
Knowing that so many people face social isolation, what can we do to help?
There is no single solution, but being attentive to others, their needs and their differences, can be a good place to start. When thinking about designing things that are accessible to as many people as possible, consulting with friends or loved ones who may feel particularly isolated, considering how you could contribute to an organization that supports inclusive communities are other helpful steps. As we continue to adjust the way we work, live, play and relate to each other, we all need to think about what it would be like to improve the lives of each of us. Human contact is a basic need for everyone.
Sarah White is a mom, communicator and passionate about coffee, passionate about community and social change.