Special Report: All the lonely people - lockdown living

Two months into social distancing and lockdown and virtual hugging of grandchildren, the cracks are starting to show.
Special Report:  All the lonely people -  lockdown living

We asked our readers to share their experience of social isolation during lockdown. In response,we received in-depth accounts of loss, sadness and stoicism. Catherine Shanahan reports.

IN the pre-Covid days, when we had a freedom we did not appreciate, we could shop in throngs, work in heavily populated offices, bring kids to swimming galas in a distant town, sport new (professional) haircuts, queue at funerals to shake the hand of the bereaved, physically celebrate milestones with family and friends, pop in to our elderly neighbours, attend festivals, clink glasses in pubs and restaurants, stand shoulder-to-shoulder at sporting events, and go on foreign holidays.

All a bit exhausting sometimes, but at least we had the freedom to choose.

Overnight, that freedom was stripped away, and while we understood it was for the common good, it challenged how we function as asociety, disrupting social connections, separating family members, ending office banter, disenfranchising the over-70s, creating a sense of isolation where previously people felt supported, and heightening the anxiety of those who were treading water pre-Covid and are nowstruggling to stay afloat.

Two months into social distancing, lockdown, and virtual hugging of grandchildren, the cracks arebeginning to show. The United Nations warned recently that the mental health and wellbeing of whole societies is at risk and this was echoed by the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI), whose president Mark Smyth said that while everyone “will be shouting for more roads, buildings, rail” post-pandemic, what we really need to invest in is “the most crucial infrastructure project of all, the psychological well-being of our nation”.

Today Feelgood presents a snapshot of the impact of the Covid crisis on some of our readers, after we asked them to share their experience of social isolation. Their insightful responses reflect a broad range of emotions and coping mechanisms and support the UN’s concern that psychological distress in populations is widespread.

For instance, Deirdre Fitzpatrick, a Dublin grandmother in her 70s, is fearful she may never see her family in the flesh again as her children and grandchildren live overseas.

I miss them terribly now, more so as none of us can make plans to visit in the near future and for the first time I worry about ever seeing them again if I was unfortunate to get Covid-19.

For parents of children with special needs, the social isolation is especially difficult. A single mother whose son has autism writes about missing her family, while her son cries for his grandparents.

Men are struggling, too. A man in his 40s living in Co Louth who is a single parent writes that he is used to loneliness “to a certain degree” but “being robbed of the most simple thing — a chat outside — is not good”.

He is sleeping badly, he says, with episodes of severe anxiety.

A 67-year-old man from Galway says the lockdown has “robbed me of hugs from my adult children and grandchildren, all of whom I love dearly”, and while loneliness is afeature of his life as he lives alone, it has “been heightened by the emergency situation, the fear of dying and the loss of socialising with friends and family”.

Another reader who needs support for her daily activities gave a bleak account of her experience of social distancing: No contact with her family and deprived of meaningful company.

Enforced separation of adult children from parents is another strong theme to emerge in oursurvey.

Dubliner Aoife Carrigy, in her mid-40s, says not seeing loved ones “is the biggest thing”.

What she misses most in the lockdown is her mother.

The emotional hole this leaves in her life is similarly experienced by a Wicklow woman in her 30s, Jocelyn Doyle, who craves her mother’s company.

“My mother lives alone and I can’t stand the thought that she hasn’t had a hug in eight weeks now, even though she’s only a few minutes’ walk away. She had to spend her birthday alone, which kills me.”

The responses that came through in our survey very much tally with the kind of concerns being raised by those seeking support from organisations such as mental health charity Aware. Similarly ALONE, a charity that supports older people to remain living in their homes, has been inundated with calls since the lockdown began on March 27.

ALONE CEO Seán Moynihan says calls are up “600% to 800%”.

“What we are hearing more than loneliness is isolation,” says Aware director of services, Bríd O’Meara.

“People are feeling isolated, and their isolation is inhibiting them from being able to do what they normally did to manage their anxiety.

“A lot of people who contact us have a history of anxiety or low mood and they would have had really good systems in place for managing that.

“But the restrictions are impeding them from following through on what was normally good practice for them to stay well.”

Higher levels of anxiety were verynoticeable in the early days of the lockdown, O’Meara says, “but as time has gone on, we have noticed that it has turned to low mood”.

She agrees with the UN that the pandemic has sown the seeds of a major mental health crisis.

“It’s something we are concerned about and that is why we are increasing our capacity now, so that we are prepared for a huge increase in demand.”

OLDER PEOPLE

Seán Moynihan says that more than 20,000 people have contacted the ALONE helpline since the lockdown began, while ALONE staff and volunteers have made upwards of 70,000 calls to older people in need of support. Seven in 10 callers to the helpline inrecent weeks are living alone.

“Some people entered lockdown feeling socially, physically, and mentally vulnerable and this has exacerbated those feelings,” says Moynihan.

“Everyone is struggling a bit. Some older people have been quite disempowered. They were very independent, in control of their lives, and now they find some of the language around older people really difficult because they are all being categorised in a certain way [vulnerable] and they never viewed themselves like that.

“So for some people the loneliness has got worse and for others it’s been their first real experience of it and it’s scary and worrying, because prior to this they were very active and engaged people and now they have been cut off.”

This sense of disempowerment isreflected in some readers’ responses.

A 70-year-old Wexford woman who wishes to remain anonymous said: “By not being allowed out it feels like I am being punished for being 70 years old. Age should not come into this.”

A Galway man in his 60s says that as a result of lockdown, “the people who need the exercise most are effectively being denied the chance to improve their chance of survival”.

Senior clinical psychologist Dr Anne Kehoe, of the PSI, says research has shown that loneliness can have a huge impact on physical as well as mental health.

“When people are very down and isolated they don’t tend to reach out for help, she says. They retreat into themselves rather than being proactive about their health.

“If you’ve been on your own for a long time or feeling very lonely for a long time, you might have a negative bias. You feel like there’s something wrong with you, that things won’t go well.

“So I think there’s an onus on those of us who have adapted to this situation to reach out to those who may be feeling lonely and to encourage them.”

It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, she says, “it can be something very simple like waving at your neighbour or getting something in for them. People can feel connected quite easily.”

SMALLER LIFE

Loneliness is a result of the stress or distress we experience when social relationships don’t meet our expectations, Kehoe says.

“What we are discovering with Covid-19 is a massive change in social relationship opportunities and suddenly people have to re-navigate all the things they had in place before.

“Some people are adapting very well, some are struggling and feel disconnected.

“The distress that causes loneliness is meant to motivate the person to try and connect, but that’s hard right now because we are trying to find a new way of doing that.

“Your survey shows some people are adapting really well, but the ones that aren’t adapting — their distress is coming from their needs not being met for connection and social relationships.”

There is a deeply poignant line in one of the responses to our survey from Jocelyn Doyle: “My life is much smaller, much quieter.”

While she has largely adapted to her new circumstances, made easier by the fact that she lives with her partner nonetheless, there are other social connections that she yearns for.

“My best friend’s three kids are a huge part of my life and I usually see them twice or three times a week; I’m finding it hard to miss so much of their little lives. I haven’t seen number 3 — my new godson — since he was a month-and-a-half old.

“I’m also starting to struggle with anxiety and depression again for the first time in three years...”

Mary Oliver Murphy, a Dublin woman in her 70s, is finding lockdown difficult, too. “I now live on my own as my husband sadly passed away at Christmas,” she says.

She is unable to visit her brother in Britain. She doesn’t have family living nearby.

Murphy has just her dog for company and because the beaches near her remain cordoned off, she cannot even walk her dog on the beach.

What she finds particularly hard is “not being able to visit family or friends or do my own shopping or to speak to another person face to face. Not being able to pursue my hobbies.”

She has no contact with anyone other than by phone, text, or email.

The whole thing is just unbearable. Like being under house arrest. Not being able to be independent.

What she misses most is “freedom to live my life. Human company. Visiting family. Shopping.”

REACHING OUT

Kehoe says it’s up to the person who feels lonely and those around them to take small steps and reach out.

Reaching out online is helpful for some. A Galway woman who responded to our survey said she can access Mass online, which helps get her through the day, as well as the 4,000 steps she takes around her garden, and doing jigsaws and crosswords. She also uses Facebook to follow friends, find recipes and read updates on Covid-19. Most of her contact with the outside world however is over the phone. She tried to link up with family via Zoom, but couldn’t get the audio to work.

Her 80th birthday should have been a cause for a major family celebration recently, but the pandemic meant her son and family were unable to come home from America, so the party was cancelled.

The restrictions mean she cannot even visit her sister who lost her husband recently. But what she misses most is her grandchildren.

Especially the one and two year old as I saw them a lot, and I fear they won’t remember me.

O’Meara says people’s anxiety is heightened by the fact that they don’t know when all the restrictions will end — Covid comes up in almost every call to the Aware helpline, even if it is not the primary reason for the call.

To this end, she welcomes the recent roadmap from the Government outlining the phased lifting of restrictions.

“At least people now know that on such a date, X will happen and at a later date, the next step will happen,” she says.

“When there was no plan it was very difficult for people to deal with what might be coming down the tracks because they didn’t know what it was going to look like, whereas now they have some idea of what will happen on particular dates. It is very reassuring for people.”

Moynihan says a lot of the people reaching out to his organisation have health issues such as COPD, back issues, mental health conditions, and chiropody problems.

“A lot of the stuff coming through is really acute health issues, and we have to encourage older people to re-engage with the primary care and acute care systems.

“And we are advocating for them and linking them in with relevant services as much as we can.

“Chiropody is a big problem. I spoke to a 92-year-old woman the other day and the joy in her heart because weorganised a chiropodist to call to her. She was at home and in pain and to have a chiropodist coming — that was huge for her.

“It sounds like a small thing, but when you are cut off in your house on your own, things become very big.”

One of our respondents, AoifeCarrigy, talks about how losing the simple pleasure of cycling out to the coast for a swim is a tough one for her.

Next to her mother and other family members, it’s what she misses most.

As a food and travel writer, she also misses “the community of meeting professional peers at events — people I wouldn’t necessarily keep in touch with in other ways, but who are important and valued members of my community.

Pubs! And pints of Guinness! And restaurants! And gigs and festivals! (I miss having them to look forward to, and also to work at). And planning holidays without feeling incredibly anxious about the thought of travel!

Another writer who wishes to remain anonymous said she worries for people’s futures.

“For the many friends and associates who have spent their lives building up the small food and hospitality businesses that are so much a part of Ireland’s recent success story, and who are suffering terribly.”

One of the things she misses most under lockdown is spontaneity.

“Everything has to be thought through, to be careful that the guidelines are being followed, which is very wearing.

“It’s the ‘not knowing’ when this will all end which is so awful,” she says.

What she doesn’t miss though is “planes thundering out of Dublin airport from about 4am”.

Other respondents have also found benefits in lockdown.

One woman in her 40s said she now had the opportunity to be away from family and care duties.

Others found themselves in unexpected situations, like another Cork woman in her 40s: “I’ve gone from dating my boyfriend to living with him 24/7 as he was in my place the day it [the lockdown] was introduced.”

But despite not being alone, she is nevertheless lonely and is desperately missing family and friends.

“I really miss my friends and their families ... I sometimes think I even miss people that I wouldn’t see ordinarily ... The whole thing heightens your emotions and feelings ... It’s all very surreal.”

She’s finding it hard to motivate herself to exercise daily and has put on a stone in weight. While trying to stick to a daily routine, she accepts that some days will be better than others. “It’s OK to have a bad day today and move on to a better day tomorrow.”

A male respondent in his 20s misses his GAA training and the absence of social outings.

He goes outside for a puck around, but misses his family and talking to friends in person.

A Co Cork woman in her 60s misses “going to see grandchildren. Going to the library and shopping. Going to church and funerals of friends and neighbours. Going to yoga and exercise classes.”

She lives with her husband and son, but they are busy farming.

NEW LONELINESS

Kehoe says some people can feel lonely “in a crowd or with family”, but the pandemic has ushered in “a new loneliness”.

“Hopefully the loneliness of Covid-19 is a transient loneliness. The people I would see have the same issues they had before the pandemic but they’ve been exacerbated by the current crisis.

“We are taking away people’s coping strategies in a bid to tackle this very dangerous virus,” Kehoe says.

Loss of physical contact is a huge issue. “For grandparents and grandchildren, both sides are missing out on that physical contact And other relationships too, like girlfriend and boyfriend,” says Kehoe.

When you are used to physical contact and it is suddenly gone, that certainly leaves a huge gap and is not to be underestimated.

Esther Ruby, a Cork woman in her 70s, was used to collecting her grandchildren after school and would mind them until their parents collected them around 4pm.

“The day that the news came of lockdown my house went so quiet, no homework or arguing to do homework or at play.

“You go from noise to nothing.”

Being robbed of this daily interaction with her grandchildren is what Esther misses most.

“Each day they would come home from school with some drama or other,” she says.

A self-professed social butterfly, she misses meeting friends for coffee or simply crossing the road to chat with someone she knows. She has adapted, though.

“Thankfully, I have not felt loneliness as I have a husband. I enjoy radio and music. I am a reader and read a lot on Kindle so that kept me relaxed.”

Other respondents to our survey, such as Deirdre Fitzpatrick, also spoke of the positive distraction of a good book.

“I love reading and can lose myself in a good book for hours,” she said.

Jocelyn Doyle said she was “grateful to be an avid reader and to have the ability to escape into the other worlds contained in books”.

Theresa Fitzpatrick, 53, from Co Laois also finds reading helpful, along with TV, cleaning, and talking to her two dogs, Bill and Ben.

However, she misses the children she normally works with, as well as her nieces and nephews and “everyone at the SpecialKarlOlympics club that I normally volunteer at”.

Kehoe says people “want to be able to live a good life here and now and they are looking for help with that”.

“I definitely see people who are struggling more now than before, but they are reaching out, which I am very happy with.

“So hopefully for most people, it’s an issue of adapting their expectations around what is possible now.”

Moynihan says there are older people out there who are “back engaging” and “have the confidence to do so” or who have family, friends and neighbours who are “tremendous support”. These are not the people contacting ALONE, he says.

Their callers are more vulnerable and are struggling as the crisis drags on. “You can see the tone of what we are getting is shifting. The tone is a little bit darker, There is more frustration, less hope, higher needs.”

These are the people who could face a new set of challenges with the lifting of restrictions, Moynihan says, as there could be a reduction in the supports available to them.

Kehoe says people are “generally managing as best they can” while “hoping for the end”.

“I think Irish society has done very very well to have come through this as well as it has.

“But I think there will be a fallout for mental health — that’s clear from all the research.

“We need mental health resources for those who have struggled on this journey to get them back to where they need to be.

“We do need huge funding formental health on the road out of this.”

ALONE is encouraging older people who need advice or support to call their support line, 0818 222 024 from 8am-8pm, seven days a week. The support line, which is running in collaboration with the Department of Health and the HSE, is available to all older people including those who have not used ALONE’s services previously.Further information can be found on www.alone.ie

AWARE: Freephone 1800804848, Monday to Saturday, 10am-10pm Email: supportmail@aware.ie

HSE tips for minding your mental health during the pandemic

  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet
  • Avoid excess alcohol
  • Maintain regular sleep routines
  • Practise relaxation techniques
  • Read/Do something creative
  • Stay connected to others
  • Stay informed but set limits for news and social media and use reliable news sources
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