Loneliness and the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing more attention to loneliness and its negative effects due to lockdowns, physical distancing and self-isolation measures, as evidenced in the media during the past few months.

While there is scant evidence to support claims of a ‘loneliness epidemic’ (a narrative that so many media outlets seem to love), loneliness levels might be increasing as a result of the measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Loneliness is a serious social and health problem and should be approached as such, even if it’s not an ‘epidemic’. For example, older people who are lonely are at higher risk of functional decline, depression, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, and dementia. Thus, it is critical to understand how to alleviate and combat loneliness during the pandemic and in post-COVID recovery plans.

The present pandemic might have allowed us to, at least, start a broader conversation about loneliness. As I wrote in early April in this media article on how COVID was changing the world:

“As we self-isolate from family, friends, and communities to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, many of us are experiencing the cruelties of social isolation and loneliness. These cruelties are not new – they’re the reality of many older Australians, particularly those who are frail and live alone or in care homes.”

I ended that piece with a hopeful note:

“Despite the toll of this pandemic, it’s giving us a chance to realise the power of social connection. It’s providing a window into how pernicious loneliness and social isolation are. It’s forcing us to talk about it. It will create more awareness towards lonely older people and to each other – and show that we can take a more active role in combating loneliness.

In another media article on loneliness in later life, this time for the ABC, I also emphasized the need to engage in physical distancing not social distancing – “as the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove explained of the shift in terminology: “We want people to still remain connected.””

We know that social connection is linked to better health and quality of life and even with the capacity to overcome crises and disasters.

I talked to countless journalists about the pandemic providing us an opportunity to destigmatize loneliness. My research on the topic in Canada and Australia for the past several years has shown how damaging the stigma of loneliness is, particularly for older people. The fear of being stigmatized – in combination with the stigma of being old and frail – is something that my participants talk constantly about during our interviews, regardless of the country, care home, health circumstances, or cultural group. No intervention will be effective in the long-term if we don’t address the social stigma associated with loneliness.

The jury is still out to see if we are indeed becoming more aware of loneliness as a social problem – not just an individual issue that the person on their own can fully change.

I am certain that several studies will be examining the issue. My recent study with Narelle Warren on the lived experiences of older Victorians living alone and experiencing loneliness will certainly offer some rich insights. We are ‘following’ a group of 35 older Victorians during lockdown; our study includes longitudinal interviews and multimedia diaries to flesh out personal and social dimensions of loneliness.

Loneliness kills; loneliness makes us sick. If we want to fully alleviate and prevent it, we need to first understand its multilayered nature and how the individual and the social interplays. And for that, sociology has a central role.

As C. Wright Mills would suggest, we need more sociological imagination in loneliness studies — we need to grasp the micro and the macro, the individual and the collective, the agentic and the structural, and their interplay: that is sociology’s “task and promise.”

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