Loneliness: The New Epidemic in the Wake of COVID-19

by Steve Morgan, Partnership Director, Agilisys (www.agilisys.co.uk)

UNDER PRESSURE IN A PANDEMIC

An increasingly lonely population was a concern for health professionals even before the pandemic. Mental health services in the UK have long been struggling, with limited resources to provide the right support for the ever-growing number of citizens facing mental health issues, many as a result of prolonged isolation. The ripple effect of COVID-19 on the mental health of the country has made it clear that there is a need for change.
The pandemic and resulting social isolation has magnified the need for human contact, and the wearing of face masks in public places puts further limits on interaction by making it difficult to read emotions. Numerous studies have found loneliness is associated with a range of health problems – ranging from addiction, depression, heart disease to shorter life expectancy. In fact, loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are said to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Although the pandemic has brought the issue of loneliness into the spotlight, this growing epidemic is unfortunately an age-old issue. The good news, though, is that there are several technology-led steps that can be taken to control the issue.

UNDERSTAND THE NEEDS OF THE POPULATION

There are often mixed messages and opinions regarding the number of people across the UK experiencing loneliness, which in itself is concerning. If we cannot record loneliness effectively, how can we confidently deal with it? Capturing data and drawing on it for insights is a strong start to fixing the problem. However, only when the data is correct and reliable can it be joined with health and social care to successfully deliver successful solutions.

The University of California recommends three questions:

1. How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
2. How often do you feel left out?
3. How often do you feel isolated from others?
These questions can then be answered by one of three clear answer

choices (hardly or never, some of the time, often). This method provides some form of measurement. As well as enabling organisations to identify bands of the most isolated or lonely individuals, it also enables the effectiveness of any intervention to be measured.

LARGE SCALE CONNECTIONS

In the same way that a virus is a danger to physical health, it has been proven that loneliness is a dangerous to mental health. As we would with physical health issues, care and treatment must be tailored to treat the mental health of those suffering with loneliness. The main and biggest difference, though, is that one of the simplest answers to loneliness and social isolation is connection with others – meaning that the needs of multiple individuals can be met at the same time.

Over 750,000 people volunteered their time to help at-risk groups and those needing care in the UK during the first lockdown. The ability to network and connect available volunteers via technology, means that tasks can be communicated to the right people with the right skills in a very short space of time. Add in connections into community groups and third sector organisations and we have a large network of people who can be mobilised to deploy an anti-loneliness care plan to isolated people at risk – or simply take a neighbour to their local library.
REDESIGNING THE CONTACT CENTRE MODEL

Traditional local authority and mental health provider contact centres used to running on an ‘inbound’ contact model, must now change to a proactive ‘outbound’ model instead. They should be making video calls to citizens, verifying current situations, and using the proactive support bubble and close integration with primary care in any exception event. Early intervention using a proactive contact model will provide high levels of cost avoidance and better patient outcomes.

USING TECHNOLOGY FOR EFFECTIVE CONNECTION

The over 75 age group is the fastest growing population now accessing the internet. There is a misplaced assumption that because they are older, they lack the understanding and knowledge of technology. However, this is rarely the case. The older generation has proven to be highly capable of learning how to use new technology.

I appreciate there’s a bigger challenge with individuals who have some form of cognitive impairment. But that is a barrier that can be overcome, through the use of voice commands such as via Amazon’s Alexa, for example. Smart devices are continually being refined with improved accessibility, and are being rolled out in large quantities to reduce social isolation,
CARE FIRST, INTERVENTION SECOND

Of course, it’s incredibly important during this pandemic for people in the highest risk groups to remain cautious about meeting others. However, loneliness can still be addressed, but from a safe distance, which is where technology plays a vital part.

As well as part of the solution, technology is also part of the problem though. If you go back in time, there were all sorts of social gatherings that would get people out of their homes and engage with other people. However, these have all but disappeared in recent times. The technology advances that have made life more connected have displaced established communities and created circumstances that make it harder to form social bonds. Faced with a damaging epidemic, we need to find ways to replace these interactions and bring people back together, even if that means doing so virtually.

By taking the right actions, and utilising the skills of people in the right way, the hope is that we can get people who have been removed from the loneliness epidemic to go on to help other people in similar situations. That’s the success story we should look for.

Above all else, we all need to care about those who are struggling, before the need for any intervention, by taking a preventative approach to health and social care. There’s no single organisation that can fix any of these issues, but if people are prepared to work together to solve the challenges, huge strides could be taken to tackle the issue of loneliness and social isolation. Either way, things need to change sooner rather than later.

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