How lonely are we and what does it mean?

It’s been almost three months of lockdown but we’re only just starting to scratch the surface of how COVID-19 and the lockdown itself is affecting our wellbeing. We all appreciate that the lockdown has meant more of us are feeling disconnected, isolated and ultimately lonely. But it’s only recently become clear how common loneliness has become for people of all ages during the pandemic.

Recent data from the ONS Opinion and Lifestyle Survey found that about 1 in 4 people aged 55-69 and almost 3 in 10 people aged 70+ felt lonely in the last week.

Our campaigner Jennifer shared:

In mid-March I met my family with the knowledge that we would not meet again for some time. My daily routine suddenly came to a halt, replaced by a new way of living. As the coronavirus story unfolds I sometimes feel sad, alone and scared. These feelings are normal in such times I know but some days I feel I’m living on another planet. 

Reasons for loneliness can vary, but with higher mortality rates from the virus, people over 70 are more likely to lose loved ones or find themselves becoming informal carers. We know those two factors can often play a big part in making people feel lonely. They are also likely to have experienced reduced contact with friends and family.

What’s more, our own opinion polling showed that 43% of people incorrectly believed that the government had instructed over-70s without any underlying health conditions to shield themselves by not leaving the house, meaning more people have been staying in isolation unnecessarily. We are concerned this action will have had a significant impact on both people’s physical and mental health.

What might surprise you, is that younger and working age people are more likely to feel lonely than people in later life. Let’s explore what may be going on.

It’s clear that the lockdown has had different impacts on different groups of people, but what’s more useful to consider is how life has changed. The sad truth that many have shared with us, is that for people in later life, the lockdown has been a continuation of the loneliness and isolation they felt before we were hit by COVID-19. One of our survey respondents told us:

Apart from my neighbours who help, and because I do not have family, I feel a lot more isolated. If my neighbours get sick who do I turn to? There is also not enough mentioned about people like me who are isolated in any case on any normal day - let alone for seven days’

This is echoed by previous research which found that around 6-13% of people aged 65+ report that they are often or always lonely. What is particularly striking is that this figure has remained roughly the same over time, and it’s something we must work together to change.

Creating a more connected society

As the lockdown eases the public can be forgiven for thinking that this period of loneliness, isolation and boredom will come to an end. Relaxation of the social distancing rules, and the recent government announcement to allow single adult households to form ‘bubbles’ with other households, means more of us can reconnect. But it’s important to understand that even when the pandemic is over the epidemic of loneliness will remain.

Prior to the pandemic, the Government’s Loneliness Annual Report set out the steps that Government is taking to tackle loneliness. While there is much to be commended in the report, we know there is a long way to go.

In particular, we need better research to understand how loneliness affects people as they age and what can make a difference. It’s positive that the government has provided high quality data on loneliness during the lockdown, but it shouldn’t take a crisis to get an up to date picture of loneliness in Britain. We also need to learn more about what measures actually make a difference to people’s lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides us with a unique moment to reflect on what works and what doesn’t.

The lockdown has shown us how restricted access to family, friends, colleagues, our local high streets and community facilities can negatively affect our wellbeing. But it has also brought about positive changes with many of us having experienced a greater sense of community spirit and friendliness in our neighbourhoods. Understanding the value of these activities and interactions, and embedding these positive developments into our everyday lives will be key to making long lasting change for people of all ages.