His last name was Jackson, but names never seemed important. He lived around the corner. He was tall and thin, in his late seventies, with thick-framed glasses and a yellowing beard. He talked about the weather and what he was buying at the market that day for dinner. His wife was hearing impaired, and other than occasionally tucking a wisp of her long grey hair behind her ear as she leaned forward, you would never have known it — she could read lips like a boss.
They were always together, so when I spotted him walking alone, hunched over, I knew something was wrong. When I asked about her, he began sobbing behind his mask. She had died of pancreatic cancer. “She lived only three weeks,” he managed to get out before he hurried away, trying to compose himself.
Each time I spotted him on the street, he seemed more frail, his kneecaps poking out from under his pants, underneath a coat that was never buttoned up, no matter how cold it was. When he stopped to chat, he often couldn’t speak without crying, but we figured out a way to communicate — I asked the questions and he nodded or shook his head. It didn’t help that we had to be six feet apart, our voices muffled by masks: “Are you eating?” “Can I get you groceries?” “This is going to get better.”
“He looks buried in his thoughts,” one of my neighbours said one day as he shuffled by, head down, oblivious to anything around him. I thought he was buried in his grief.
I had gotten into the habit of walking the dogs by his house. Sometimes he would come out and give them wordless pets. Other times, I could see the flash of his television screen in his front room, the outline of his head in the blue light. I hoped he wasn’t too lonely.
On one of these walks, just over a month since he lost his beloved, the sidewalk in front of his house was blocked by three cars. The first was a long, white station wagon. The sign on the dashboard read: CORONER — the lights of the police cruisers flashing behind it. From across the street, I could see that the news was on the television and two people with POLICE written on their backs were kneeling on the floor.
“He died of loneliness,” said the elderly lady sitting on her porch nearby, her English barely perceptible under her Greek accent. “This virus … it’s awful. Even my kids can’t come see me.”
Two days later, I had heard that her daughter visited after she didn’t answer her phone to find her mother lifeless in her bed.
Can loneliness kill you?
There have been countless studies on the effects of loneliness, especially in light of a pandemic that has forced us into isolation for months. And while there is debate about whether or not one can die as a direct result of isolation and “aloneness,” what we do know for sure is this: loneliness is bad, both for our bodies and our minds.
Being disconnected from our social networks makes us less likely to be active and more likely to be depressed. We don’t sleep as well, experience problems with memory and increases in blood pressure. Plus, our immune system doesn’t function optimally. Of course, sleepless nights and lack of exercise aren’t deadly in themselves — but it’s the collateral damage of each that’s worrisome. Among other things, most people who feel socially disconnected don’t take care of themselves, are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours, like drinking and smoking, and are more prone to depression and other mental health issues.
So where does that leave us, then, as we continue to grapple with a scary global pandemic that has many of us still holed up in our homes, navigating a virus that’s killing people without the supports of our usual networks — our families, friends, and work colleagues. We can’t even shop for food without feeling the heavy shadow of deadly contagion. Heck, even our daily laugh with the corner cafe barista is barely recognizable, smothered by a double mask, hand sanitizer and plexiglass. Constant fear, stress and isolation: it’s the perfect trifecta of trauma. Is it any wonder that psychologists have been ringing the loneliness epidemic alarm for months?
Japan, which has seen a whopping increase in suicides among women since the beginning of COVID-19, has heard the alarm and is taking action. Last October, that number clocked in at 70 per cent over the same month the previous year. The sticker shock prompted the appointment of a Minister of Loneliness, Tetsushi Sakamoto. His plan? To “promote activities that prevent loneliness and social isolation and protect the ties between people,’’ he told reporters.
It’s not the first time we have heard the Harry Potter-esque title. In 2018, long before the virus began its slow creep across the globe, British Prime Minister Theresa May was the first to address loneliness on a government level, naming Baroness Diana Barran to the role of loneliness minister. For fun, I reached out to her last March, but according to a U.K. parliament spokesperson, the COVID-19 crisis made it difficult to “find time in the Minister’s diary for an interview,” however she did point me to the Baroness’ op ed in the Sunday Telegraph, outlining the many ways that the British can stay connected while staying at home, including getting online and participating in virtual church services, and workout videos. Readers can also find a link to the You Are Not Alone Newsletter for tips on coping with coronavirus isolation.
The piece also outlined the steps the government has taken to date to ease loneliness, such as publishing a loneliness strategy, establishing a government fund to support projects aimed at reducing loneliness and launching a #LetsTalkLoneliness campaign.
Cultivating connection in a time of distancing
Clearly, the fact that we have made people stay at home and distance themselves from others for the last year and a bit raises an interesting paradox: that the very measures put in place to protect them from illness, also have the potential to put them more at risk by exacerbating the negative health effects of isolation and loneliness.
Dr. Diego Delgado, a Toronto cardiologist, made the same observation in an op-ed for Healthing.
While he concedes that the association between COVID-19 infection and “acute coronary events, heart failure exacerbations and cases of myocarditis” reinforces the need for the elderly and those with pre-existing cardiac conditions to maintain social distancing — ideally staying at home — he also cautions against ignoring the added health risk posed by lack of social connection.
“Social isolation is a common source of chronic stress,” writes Delgado. “Prolonged social isolation has been shown to increase the risk of morbidity and mortality similar to known factors, including hypertension, smoking and obesity.”
Social integration while socially isolating
He refers to the importance of social integration in times of social isolation, and suggests healthcare providers implement into their care methods of contact like regular phone calls, education on good eating habits and the value of exercise for at-risk populations. Delgado called on society to recognize its role in supporting the vulnerable.
“The current outbreak provides an opportunity to reset our goals as a society and as individuals,” he writes. “We do not know how long we will be recommending our patients to self isolate, but we need to be prepared to face the psychological and cardiovascular consequences of our recommendations.”
And consequences there are. From increased anxiety and depression to rising alcohol and drug use, the pandemic has brought our social support infrastructure to its knees — and we are all paying the price.
Yet, as devastating as the last year has been, there is one bright spot that can’t be overlooked, says Bill VanGorder, Interim Chief Policy Officer at the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), a Toronto-based advocacy association for older Canadians.
“COVID-19 has most definitely made loneliness and feelings of isolation worse than they were pre-COVID, but it has also made all of us more aware of the importance of social connections — we need our friends and family,” he says. “But I also hope it has made the government, and the public, pay attention to the impact of isolation and all the ways we are failing Canadians in terms of supporting them in this area.”
And it’s not just older Canadians.
“Loneliness and isolation doesn’t only affect people who may be considered a senior,” he says. “We talk to people in their fifties and sixties who also are experiencing both of these and they are worried — because we know that there are serious consequences to being alone, like Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
Early in the pandemic, CARP worked to bridge the gap in connection between older Canadians and the world during physical distancing by holding weekly virtual town halls and summits. And although early in the pandemic saw the tech knowledge of many of CARP’s members limited to not much beyond the occasional email to family, VanGorder says they got up to speed quickly — more than 3,000 people joined a session on National Seniors Day last October. Regional chapters have also been hosting two to three webinars every month — with twice, sometimes three times as many people logging on than pre-COVID. The sessions are a mix of educational — answering questions about vaccines, for example — while others are purely social, perhaps including a game of Bingo, or time for members to have virtual discussions about what they are dreaming of doing once life goes back to normal. These calls are not only a vital form of connection, he says, but they also allow CARP to keep tabs on the needs of its members.
“Ask our members what they miss most since the pandemic began, and they say things like, ‘I miss hugs,’ or ‘I miss my choir,’ he says. “The isolation they feel is absolutely the worst thing for them and it’s what they focus on the most — it’s second in importance only to keeping themselves healthy.”
Asked whether or not Canada should appoint a Minister of Loneliness, and VanGorder gets excited.
“If that’s what it takes to address the impact of isolation and loneliness on Canadians,” he says. “A minister would make sure that programs are in place to ease these issues, other parts of the government would be accountable to them, and maybe, finally, we could change the way we care for older Canadians.”
But it seems we’re a long way off from any grand ministerial appointments. At just over a year since the lockdowns began, our policy makers seem focused on cleaning up the mess that is long-term care, figuring out the logistics of vaccinations and finding news ways to keep Canadians motivated to continue to protect ourselves against the immediate health risks of the virus. It’s been a long time spent isolating and distancing. How much longer can we go on and still emerge with our mental health and sense of wellbeing somewhat intact?
“That’s a tough question,” says Gregor Sneddon, who has had his eye on the worrying consequences of social distancing and self-isolation since last March.
As executive director of Ottawa-based HelpAge Canada, a Canadian charity that supports vulnerable older persons, he has spent most of the last year keeping tabs on how COVID-19 is impacting the communities that need help the most, such as lower income Canadians.
He says that while social distancing and isolation may have felt like a new concept to many of us, it’s actually not so new.
“We have been cultivating a culture of isolation for years,” says Sneddon. “[Even before COVID], no one really gathered together. It started with television, when people started staying home for their entertainment, like watching the Ed Sullivan Show. Decades later we have tablets and phones. It’s a private, ‘I’m in control’ experience. Why would I go out to see a movie when I could order one, and watch it in bed?”
And while the negative effects of this self-imposed isolation — whether pre or post-pandemic — may not have been felt as much for younger people, since many times there are colleagues and other forms of contact to be had in their day, like people on the bus, or cashiers at the store, it can have devastating consequences for those without these connections.
“A person can be thought of as a composition of all their relationships,” says Sneddon, who was a chaplain with the Anglican Church of Canada before joining HelpAge. “These relationships are a mirror of who you are and your relationship to the world and are important ways through which we define ourselves.”
Except that as people age and experience physical and cognitive impairments, their exposure to the world shrinks, as does their exposure to other people and they “bear the fruit of isolation,” he says. Add in a global pandemic that locks people in their homes, takes away their means of participating in the community and belonging, and disconnects them from family and friends, and the result is critical health effects. All of which is worse for those with little money.
“Generally, if you have income, you have options,” he says. “Those who don’t have as many options are the most susceptible to loneliness, which we know, can be fatal.”
In a bid to circumvent these effects, at the start of the pandemic, HelpAge Canada launched a national fundraising campaign to support local community partners in their humanitarian relief to seniors, like delivering food and hygiene products and setting up phone trees that seniors have a social connection. The organization raised more than $500,000 — funds that also allowed the organization to provide iPads to seniors, along with a digital literacy program to allow them to participate in the community, access services and stay in touch with friends and family.
Like VanGorder, Sneddon believes that the pandemic has forced us to take a closer look at our lives and take stock of what’s important.
“When this is over, there will be some fundamental questions raised about who we are, and our feelings about our lives,” he says. “But for right now, I would say it’s so important to continue to connect. Let’s smile at each other from a safe distance. We can still say hello and talk to one another. That’s what’s going to get us through.”
It’s not clear whether or not a government appointment is what our nation needs to erase — or even ease — the isolation and loneliness that plagues us. But maybe if there had been some official declaration that made policymakers accountable for eliminating these challenges, some significant money thrown at setting up and maintaining support programs and education on how we can help others — and ourselves — Mr. Jackson would still be here today telling me about his plans for dinner.
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