We Helped Tackle Loneliness In Lockdown. Now’s Not The Time To Stop.

From befriending helplines to WhatsApp groups, lockdown forced us to confront loneliness in our communities. Here's how to keep it up.

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Lockdown has given many people an insight into what true loneliness feels like. Single parents and people living alone recorded the highest level of loneliness in the past few months, a survey found, with women more likely to experience it than men.

Loneliness isn’t a new issue, of course, but lockdown has exacerbated it. Those with health conditions that make them more vulnerable, as well as older people, have been forced to stay indoors for months. Single parents haven’t been able to source support from grandparents. People living alone have relied on phone calls and Zoom quizzes for company. For some, their homes have become their prisons.

The Clap for Carers initiative was successful in bringing millions of neighbours together on their doorsteps. As much as it was about saying ‘thank you’ to key workers, it also became a moment of connection for those isolated from everyone else.

Lockdown has posed challenges in how we support those experiencing loneliness. With traditional routes like visiting or meeting for coffee no longer allowed, people have gone back to basics – with phone calls, letters and chats over the fence with a neighbour.

Befriending helplines have also been a lifeline for some. James Carlin, director of charity 3SG, started Compassionate Community – an initiative bringing people together in Bath and North East Somerset to support each other.

Carlin was inspired to launch it after noticing many people were lonely when he was delivering food and medicine to them. The befriending service meant vulnerable people would receive a call a few times a week for a 45-minute chat.

The majority of volunteers are now calling back the same people, having established a relationship with them, “which is testament to the Compassionate Community we are now building for the longer term,” says Carlin.

Cheshire charity, Older People Active Lives (OPAL), also set up a befriending line for members. Volunteer James Wilkinson, 71, from Runcorn, has been helping out. “I call a man in his 80s called Les once a week who’s on his own,” he says. “I’m usually quite active so I enjoy talking to Les as it breaks the monotony.

“We have a good chat about sport or the weather and he says I keep him sane.”

Duncan Round, 61, moved in with his 92-year-old mother, who has dementia, during lockdown to care for her. He struggled with loneliness, too, but found support through a virtual community of carers aligned to OPAL. “One chap struck up independent WhatsApp calls on football, music and life,” he says.

They also had weekly Zoom calls – and the charity even found a hairdresser to offer tips for doing his mum’s hair, “which was useful as I had no idea how to use curlers and mousse,” says Round.

“I call a man in his eighties called Les once a week who’s on his own.”

- James Wilkinson, befriending volunteer

Younger people have faced loneliness during lockdown, too, which is why Sara Dewhurst, based in Whalley, Lancashire, set up The Resilience Nest, a Facebook group to offer support to anyone who needed it.

Dewhurst is a health psychologist in training, with past experience facilitating mental health groups for the charity Mind. “I keep the group number small, as it helps the ladies feel confident in sharing how they feel,” she explains. “We have regular mood check-ins, we share our personal experiences and what helps us get out of a funk, we have virtual coffee mornings and I teach the group effective and healthy coping techniques to help get through lockdown.”

Serena, 33, who is a member of the group, says: “It’s been so helpful to know you’re not the only one feeling a rollercoaster of emotions in this time! I’ve gone from being employed to unemployed and living alone – it’s been tough. Sara has given us helpful activities and ways of coping and distracting our brains.”

For Robert Hacking, who works for the Campaign to End Loneliness, keeping an eye on his neighbours has been important.

During lockdown, Hacking spotted a neighbour, John, wasn’t watering his garden as much, and his curtains were opening later – so, he called him to check in. John said he was worried because three hospital appointments had been cancelled and he hadn’t seen anyone in days. Hacking invited him to a socially-distanced supper in his garden. His neighbour was over the moon, and said it was the first social interaction he’d had since lockdown started.

These tactics to tackle loneliness during the pandemic have been great, but the concern is that our efforts will lose momentum as things go back to normal. Hacking worries older people will be left behind. “Younger people want to get back to the life they had prior to coronavirus,” he says.

“I fear there is an age divide developing, and older people who are prone to loneliness – and more likely to become isolated – will not be helped unless people maintain the community spirit the pandemic started and notice changes in people’s habits in their local community.

“All it then takes is a quick chat to connect and ask them if everything is still alright – you could make someone’s day.”

So, how can we keep it up?

There are many ways for all of us to stay connected – phone calls, emails, Zoom chats. But we can also be doing more in our own neighbourhoods.

If you know of someone who lives alone, why not invite them over to sit in the garden and have a socially-distanced cuppa? They can bring their own beverages and cups, or even snacks, to reduce risk.

Create, or keep using, WhatsApp groups with neighbours, family or friends –share how you’re getting on and ask others how they are, Hacking suggests. Use Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch; and carry on the phone and video calls with grandparents, older friends and relatives who may still need to isolate in the coming months. Laughing and sharing memories can be a big help.

“I’ve always recognised that staying in touch with friends, family and loved ones is so important,” says Hacking. “That said, we also need to remember to keep checking in on our neighbours and those who live alone both in our local community and further afield.”

Joining befriending schemes, continuing to support people through Covid-19 mutual aid groups, and supporting charities who help those at risk of loneliness are more great ways to help. There are also plenty of letter-writing schemes to join such as Letters for the NHS, or a government-run scheme enabling people to write letters to those isolating in their homes.

“It is even more important as lockdown eases for some that we check on those still isolating,” says Hacking. “Even if we can’t be there in person, we should still encourage people to just call. Small moments matter, and can make a huge difference to someone who may be feeling lonely.”