With news of a second lockdown, people who live alone are once again facing the reality of isolation. They’re able to form ‘social bubbles’, as well as meet one person outdoors, but the next four weeks will still be a difficult time for many.
The toll can be huge – working-age adults living alone were more likely to report loneliness “often or always” during the start of the pandemic compared to the average adult, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found.
Lorraine Bridges, 45, from Croydon, has found it “really hard”. She tells HuffPost UK: “I’m an outgoing, sociable person and my world has become very small. People have retreated into their own lives, and homes, and if you live alone, there’s a real lack of presence, of someone by your side.”
Bridges, who is the director of Bare PR, says she’s felt “forgotten about” at times by her friends and has missed the lack of physical contact with others.
Jasmine Douglas, 24, from London, has also spent the past couple of months on her own after her aunt and uncle, who she lives with, went to France in June.
At first she enjoyed the freedom – “I felt like I owned my own time again and that I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, without being rude” – but she has since been finding it more isolating.
“I can’t have friends around anymore and my partner, who is living in Wales, won’t be able to visit me as much, if at all,” she says. “I miss sitting with people and doing nothing together like watching TV or going on our phones.”
Podcast host and journalist Francesca Specter loves alone time so much she’s written a book on it – Alonement: How to be alone and absolutely own it – but she also believes it can be “very difficult” during the pandemic.
“I’ve lived alone for three years, and this year is much, much harder than the previous ones,” she says. “You don’t have the same incidental social contact you might get when cohabiting or going into an office space daily, which can feel draining if you’re an extroverted personality type.
“Then, of course, there’s the issue of touch – I sorely miss random hugs and gestures I would have taken for granted before, like high-fiving my gym instructor at the end of the session.”
So what things have helped people who live alone feel less alienated during these tougher times?
Random texts, calls and chats
Nana Marfo, 37, is in the shielded patient group, as he lives with a serious respiratory condition. He says regular phone calls from friends and family members are really important – he receives calls two or three times a day.
“It helps me mentally and emotionally,” he says. “It’s just having that adult conversation instead of staring at my cat.” Speaking to loved ones also helps ease his anxiety levels, he says.
Those who want to support someone living alone should never underestimate the impact of dropping them a call – or making everyday chitchat with a neighbour who lives alone, says Specter. “Sometimes that small dose of social contact goes a long way,” she says.
And for Bridge, phone calls are always better than messages. “We rely far too much on WhatsApp and social media,” she says. “Hearing someone’s voice is a million times better.”
Virtual friendship date nights
Douglas has virtual date nights, one-on-one, with friends once a week where they’ll each order a takeaway and catch up. Initially they tried to do a group date night on Zoom but it was “quite intense”, she says, as you can only focus on one person speaking at a time.
If you’re supporting someone who lives alone, she recommends setting up weekly social calls. “Maybe you could have an evening every week where you join a virtual class together, or even DIY it and have an evening where you cook together remotely following a new recipe, with a different person finding a new recipe every week,” she says.
It’s something Bridges does and finds helpful. She regularly catches up with a friend and they take it in turns to pick a recipe and cook a meal together, then they sit down to eat – but all via Zoom.
Gifts and letters in the post
It’s such a treat to receive a letter or card in the post. And for people who live alone, it can mean the difference between a rubbish day and a brilliant one.
“My friends and I have sent each other little gifts in the post which are nice – again, thoughtful spontaneous touches,” says Specter.
Douglas has taken to writing to people during the pandemic and says she’d love to receive some herself. “It doesn’t cost much for stamps and lets people know you’re thinking about them and can really help people feel good getting a surprise letter in the post that isn’t just bills or spam mail,” she says.
Such spontaneous acts of kindness make a huge difference. Bridges describes receiving a box of cakes and treats delivered to her door by a friend. “Sending something through the post goes a long way – whether that’s a funny card, face pack or candles.”
Long walks outside
Under the new lockdown rules, people are able to take exercise outdoors with one person from another household, as well as members of your own household or support bubble.
Friends and family members can help give loved ones something to look forward to by organising walks or bike rides in the coming weeks.
“I’ve met my parents for extra-long, socially distanced walks a lot over the past few months, which has been wonderful as it’s made for some of the best conversations we’ve ever had,” says Specter.
“It’s something I’d like to keep up pandemic or not. It means a lot when they make the effort to visit for a walk.”
Online work gatherings
Some people who live alone also work alone, which can make the experience even more alienating. Colleagues can help by setting up virtual meet-ups, check-ins or even after-work gatherings.
Douglas runs business club Babes on Waves for young female entrepreneurs. “A few times a day I’ll schedule calls with women in my business community for female founders and we’ll work together over Zoom,” she says. “Even if we’re working in silence, just having that company makes me feel more connected.”
Bridges agrees online business groups can be a huge help. “I’m part of a global business network called BNI – we meet every week online and it’s been a lifesaver,” she says. “It’s a community of business owners that all have your back and pick you up when times are hard.”
You don’t have to be a business owner – suggest it to colleagues who live alone, who might appreciate the social interactions. Such meet-ups help build routine into the day, which is important for boosting mental health, and also gives people something to look forward to.