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Self–isolation may be a nuisance, but real isolation is a nightmare

Self–isolation may be a nuisance, but real isolation is a nightmare

As coronavirus continues to impact lives, Lucy Colman considers the difference between self–isolation and real isolation. 10/03/2020

As the news shares increasing reports of coronavirus spreading in the UK, more and more Brits are being told to “self–isolate” which, according to the NHS, means staying indoors and avoiding contact with people for 14 days. Whilst for some this is a scary and overwhelming time of uncertainty, for others it’s an opportunity to avoid the miserable March commute, get a bit more sleep and work from the comfort of their sofa. 

However, for hundreds of thousands across the country, isolation is not optional, it’s inevitable. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all – and Age UK estimates that as many as 1.4 million older people are chronically lonely. Loneliness, too, is an epidemic. The appalling effects on health are well known, with living alone and poor social connections as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Of course, loneliness affects all ages. However, reduced ability to leave the house and decreased social connections creates a specific form of isolation that impacts on the older people in our communities.  

Fragmented communities resulting from family breakdown, the internet moving our lives online, including when it comes to bill payments and other regular activities that used to involve face–to–face interaction, and perhaps even a fear of older people in a society that prizes youth and independence have made this crisis easy to ignore. Though some are doing amazing work to help reverse the tide, like RISE in Putney which works to reach isolated older people in South West London, they are still only able to scratch the surface. We need to reassess our values and priorities as a community if we are going to have a lasting impact on the levels of loneliness in our society. 

If the way we treat older people is, as is widely agreed, closely linked to the values held most dearly in a society, we could look beyond our borders for a range of approaches – some more organic and appealing than others. China’s “Elderly Rights Law” requires that people visit their ageing parents regularly; failure to comply can end in fines and even prison. Other nations have cultivated an inherent respect and inclusivity of their older people, such as in Latin countries and elsewhere where the older generations look after children whilst the middle generation goes out to work. In the US, some large companies are offering ‘returnships’ for older people wishing to make their way back into the workforce after retirement (Robert de Niro portrays this wonderfully in ‘The Intern’). These efforts to include older people in society show us that old age is a significant concern across the world.

 The Bible also has something to offer us if we’re looking for a renewed perspective on the older people in our midst. Far from encouraging an urgent salon appointment, Proverbs invites us to celebrate the signs of ageing: “Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life”. Job carries on: “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days”. The Psalms remind us “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green”. We must remind ourselves that older people have a place in our society, and it should not be behind a closed door. Longevity in life brings depths of wisdom that younger people in our society cannot have yet acquired; a life well lived can teach us all how to do life well. 

However ageing also brings challenges that are, to many in society, to be avoided. Perhaps what is missing is any sense of the deep value to be found when we engage with the older people in our communities who are not “thriving” according to society’s measures. Those who have reduced independence. Those with dementia. Those who are no longer able to leave the house. We have much to learn from these older neighbours about profound, unappealing, scary, beautiful things like dependence, loss and – even – death; things we spend much of our time trying not to think about, but that deepen our experience of life if we let them. Older people have much to offer us as we learn what it means to be human; but it does take some kind of courage to face these concepts and engage in a conversation.  

As many of us take our two–week break from the outside world, let’s not forget those who will remain inside when the fortnight is up.

If you are interested in reaching isolated older people in your community, here are some helpful links:

The Cares Family

Regenerate–RISE

Campaign to End Loneliness


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 Image: DimaBerlin/shutterstock.com

Lucy Colman

Lucy Colman

Lucy is currently studying a Masters in Theology at St Mellitus College. She has worked as a policy consultant with a specialism in fighting modern slavery and human trafficking. From 2010 – 2016 she worked at the Centre for Social Justice, leading their research on modern slavery. As a result of this work she helped the Government pass the Modern Slavery Act 2015, acting as Specialist Adviser to the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee. From 2017 – 2019 Lucy was a trustee of Regenerate RISE, a charity working to end isolation among older people in South West London.

Posted 10 March 2020

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