How loneliness and social isolation impact our health
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How loneliness and social isolation impact our health

'Now, as a result of Covid-19 and the requirement for prolonged periods of self-isolation, our connection to others has become a key casualty'.

Photo: Dreamstime.com
Photo: Dreamstime.com

IT is becoming a matter of urgency to discuss and explain what many of us are currently feeling and experiencing: loneliness, social isolation and the distress they cause. These hardships were already the focus of global concern and research prior to Covid-19. With the added layer of social distancing imposed by the Covid-19 epidemic, appropriate action to alleviate these problems has become even more pressing.

How did loneliness and social isolation become so prevalent even before Covid-19? We can point the finger at increased ageing population, dissolution of the traditional family, increased geographic mobility and the effects of technology on our lives.

Now, as a result of Covid-19 and the requirement for prolonged periods of self-isolation, our connection to others has become a key casualty. The swift uptake of Zoom technology both for business and personal/social reasons is testament to the need we, humans, have for social connection.

Why is connection to others so important? Because humans are hardwired to connect. Connection to others is basic to our wellbeing and, conversely, lack of connection can have negative effects on our social, emotional and even physical health.

Connecting with others provides us with our social identity and social support both of which not only affect our health and life expectancy but do so more than other factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, exercise, obesity etc.

How can our distress at being socially isolated affect our health so significantly?

Peoples’ overall health is determined by social factors such as level of education, income, financial status, employment or lack thereof, our ability to take care of ourselves and feeling supported by family and friends.

The effects of these social factors accumulate over time and provoke changes at the cellular and tissue level within our bodies, thus contributing to illnesses such as elevated blood pressure, sleep disorders, depression, decreases in cognitive health and faster progression of dementia/Alzheimer’s disease. Harmful lifestyle behaviours such as alcohol and substance abuse, smoking, obesity and sedentary lifestyle are also increased by loneliness and social isolation.

Surveys indicate that 1 in 4 Australian adults consider themselves to be lonely; therefore, it is not surprising to learn that lonely Australians may have significantly worse mental and physical health and quality of life than connected Australians.

So, how do we, as a Community, increase our social connectedness? This is a thorny question and one that health professionals have not found easy to deal with because the term ‘loneliness’ has negative connotations which make some people reluctant to acknowledge their loneliness.

Efforts to assist the elderly to become less socially isolated have focussed on 2 main interventions: 1. providing social opportunities, such as lunch in a group setting; and 2. providing companionship to the elderly person by having a volunteer deliver meals or visit/phone them once or twice per week.

Although evaluation of these interventions suggest that group-based social activities and programs are more effective than one-to-one visits by volunteers, the results are not all that encouraging.

The results of some Australian researchers inject a fresh approach for social planners. They found that it is not the amount of social contact a person has, but the sense of belonging or affiliation that a person feels and derives from their social interactions that is most relevant in addressing social isolation.

They say that there is an important psychological difference between simply “showing up” to a random social event and regarding oneself as being a “valued member of a social group”; that it is only when a person identifies with a group and when the group contributes to his/her sense of self, that participating in the social activities of the group, is likely to alleviate social isolation, loneliness and depression.

This is where being a member of the Jewish Community is of great advantage.

The Sydney Jewish Community is close and protective and committed to ensuring the well-being of communal members, especially those who have become lonely and socially isolated due to loss of job and/or family support, loss of social network, becoming single or experiencing other difficult life circumstances. Covid-19 has heightened the risk of becoming socially isolated.

In view of the importance of social connectedness to our health and quality of life, the Community, through its organisations and partners, should become proactive in:

  • Raising awareness of social isolation and loneliness which all of us experience at various times through our lives;
  • Engaging in a communal conversation and publicising loneliness/social isolation would normalise these universal problems which at times can be embarrassing or stigmatising.

These positive measures would boost the Community’s resilience which is particularly important in the current climate of Covid-19 and the growing global anti-Semitism which makes the Community feel uneasy;

  • Creating and implementing programs and activities for various age groups according to recognised guidelines;
  • Involving participants in the planning and design of programs;
  • Recruiting volunteers to facilitate programs and activities;
  • Evaluating programs to assess if they satisfy members’ needs for social connection.

Dr Eva Lowy is a clinical psychologist, in private practice, who has been involved in researching the academic literature on loneliness and social isolation with a particular interest in Sydney’s Jewish community.

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