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Isolation has become a common experience since the COVID-19 crisis began. We’ve developed a shared understanding of what it means to spend most of our time at home, with limited interactions with others, and few other activities or hobbies we might normally enjoy. For most of us, that’s become more challenging as time has gone on. It’s hard to stay away from friends or family, to see community events and concerts cancelled, to be unable to share a meal in a restaurant or play sports with friends. It’s hard to learn and work from home (or not at all) and adapt to the contact-less world.
There’s good reason for that.
Spending time with people we care about and doing activities we enjoy most improves our mental health and overall well-being.
Even though it’s not ideal, most of us we’ve had the benefit of technology to stay connected to services we need and to each other. It allows us to work, connect and play differently. (Can you even imagine how we would be impacted if this happened even 10-15 years ago?!)
But there are many people left behind; those who were already facing social isolation before the pandemic began are far less able to adapt to this physically distanced world.
What is social isolation, and who does it impact?
We all need relationships and friendships to get us through difficult times and to give us something to look forward to. But poverty, health or mental health challenges, disabilities or language barriers can mean that it’s hard (or impossible) to develop and maintain those same relationships. Without those relationships, people feel lonely and may lack a sense of connection or belonging. They miss out on opportunities and they don’t have the same access to the resources and relationships they need to live a good life.
In normal times, there are community centres, programs and volunteers to help fill the gaps. In COVID times, community centres can’t offer in-person services, programs are cut back or cancelled, and volunteers are facing considerable restrictions to their work.
Isolation impacts seniors
Seniors are a vulnerable group because they more often live alone, have additional health challenges, don’t always have friends and family nearby and may have limited access to or understanding of technology. Of course, there are many grandparents who regularly look after grandchildren or connect via Zoom to follow along with a fitness class – but many don’t regularly use technology, don’t know what kind of technology they need, or just can’t afford it. The pandemic has left them more vulnerable than they’ve ever been. Where before they may have joined friends to play cribbage, have lunch or go for walks around the mall, they now are stuck at home. Those with complex health needs or compromised immune systems are relying on someone else to get their groceries, medication and supplies; missing out on those face-to-face interactions they might have had at any of those stores.
Isolation impacts those with different or limited abilities
Those with disabilities have often found themselves left out because our communities aren’t always as inclusive as they could be. When people think about disabilities, sometimes they think about accessible parking, wheelchair ramps, accessible washrooms and other aspects of the built environment. But our new over-reliance on technology expose people with disabilities to other challenges, like when media, digital communication and work-from-home technology that does not meet their needs.
Very small changes can sometimes make a big difference – for example, you have likely noticed American Sign Language interpreters at many of the COVID-19 press briefings. It’s important that those with a hearing impairment be able to access media during a pandemic – without it, they’d be missing out on importance health and safety information.
In addition, many organizations that support those with disabilities rely on volunteers to help deliver their services. COVID-19 has made it extra difficult – especially for those volunteers that normally go to someone’s home. That one-on-one connection with a volunteer might have been the one thing a person looked forward to, and now they’re without it. Fortunately, extra funding is helping some organizations adapt to using tablets and computers to offer virtual programming. While it’s not the same as a hug from a friend, a familiar face or voice can go a long way to helping someone feel less lonely.
Isolation impacts those living on a low income
If you live in poverty, internet access is often a luxury. In pre-COVID-19 times, the library was a place to seek refuge. Free internet, books, DVDs, food, programs, friendly familiar faces – libraries can do a lot to provide social opportunities. But during the pandemic, many of these services have been limited or not available at all. And although libraries are doing a fantastic job of trying to do as much as they can for their communities, the entertainment and education options they offer are limited without internet access.
Isolation isn’t always a visible problem
This is especially true for people who look young and healthy, but who are struggling with their mental health. One example is a new mom suffering from post-partum depression or anxiety. Even if they have friends and family to support them, COVID-19 is limiting their contact. They might not be able to leave their baby in the care of a grandparent to get a couple hours of sleep or meet with other moms to talk about worries and concerns.
For others dealing with mental illness, interacting with peers in a safe environment helps build confidence and can help them cope with the stresses they’re facing. Without being able to meet face-to-face in a safe space, organizations like Canadian Mental Health Association have had to adapt – they’re delivering care kits that include fun and relaxing activities that are similar to what they’d offer as part of their programs. Activity kits are especially important for those who don’t have access to the internet.
Knowing that so many people are facing social isolation, what can we do to help?
There is no one solution but being mindful of others, their needs, and different they may be from our own, is a good place to start. Thinking about designing things that are accessible to the most people possible, check in on friends or loved ones who might be feeling particularly isolated, considering how you might contribute to an organization that supports inclusive communities are other helpful steps. As we continue to adjust how we work, live, play and relate to one another, we all need to think about what it would look like to make life better for all of us. Human contact is a basic need for everyone.
Sarah White is a mama, communicator and coffee lover, who is passionate about community and social change.