The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a large range of inequalities in our social systems in the UK. From children going hungry, to an enduring loneliness felt by a cross section of people that had never dealt with these emotions or situational factors previously. However, even in these  trying times, there has been some positivity. Due to the increased social isolation all of us have faced throughout the pandemic, we have become more empathetic and aware of the daily lives that a lot of our older community members have faced well before the pandemic took hold.

Age UK estimate that there are 1.4 million chronically lonely older people in England, with many more spread out cross the rest of the UK[1]. There is an important differentiation to make that loneliness and social isolation are not one and the same and they are not mutually exclusively linked. Loneliness can be felt when you are surrounded by people, but the quality of social contact is low. Social isolation is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have. It is about the quantity and not quality of relationships. People may choose to have a small number of contacts[2].  Loneliness impacts on the quality of life for all people who feel it, however it affects older people at a disproportional rate for many reasons, Not only has COVID shone a light on the issue it has also given us a way to navigate through it and create cohesion where it was lacking previously.

The National Lottery Community Fund recently conducted a study whereby they asked 7,000 people what they would like to see happen in their communities after COVID 19. 50% of respondents wanted to see behaviour change in 2021 and that behaviour change was ‘looking out for one another’.  Behaviour change in itself is notoriously difficult to facilitate, especially when people aren’t directly impacted. Loneliness and social isolation in older age was often an intangible issue for a lot of the population. There are many variables in why this was the case, one being that most of the UK population are under the age of 65, so already there was a barrier to understanding why. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that you don’t need to be older to face these conditions. Inadvertently, this pandemic has removed the barriers to understanding loneliness and social isolation as an issue and has given the population a direct experience of it.

Direct experience is one of the most important factors when it comes to facilitating and understanding behavioural and cultural change. One of the best examples of this is acceptance of climate change. People with direct experience of climate change are quicker to adapt and change their behaviour as well as recognise it as a pertinent issue. However, people that have not seen the damage or lived through the ever-increasing turbulent weather are quicker to dismiss it as something that isn’t as important in their daily lives. Whilst there is not a huge similarity between loneliness and climate change, there is an underpinning psychological concept that you don’t change or adjust your behaviour unless it impacts you directly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an increased feeling of loneliness and social isolation across all demographics and this direct experience has increased the level of empathy towards older people who have been in this situation long before the pandemic took hold. This direct experience could be the catalyst to renewed community cohesion in 2021.

What about ‘If 50% of people want to see people look out more for one another in 2021 how can they?’ One of the ways we can all do this is by asking someone how are you? This simple question can make all the difference, especially to a person that has been suffering from loneliness and social isolation. It is a conversation starter and can help towards building lasting friendships that may not have happened before.

Community Action Network are seeing the year of restrictions brought on by COVID-19 as an opportunity to start building better links between people, businesses, and community groups. We believe that by harnessing the public’s desire for more looking out for one another can begin to forge the path of community resilience as well as pave the way for a cultural shift towards a key behaviour change, which is including older people in the wider community. Furthermore, people have been living in restrictions for nearly 12 months and during that time have become increasingly concerned about leaving their homes, if one question asked by the cashier or shop assistant can help  reduce anxieties that many are feeling, then why not ask someone ‘How are you?’.

[1] Research from Age UK

[2] Definition from Age UK