Researchers have identified social distancing-friendly approaches to addressing loneliness during Covid-19, particularly for the elderly in nursing homes.

Mechanical puppies, laughter therapy, talking about art, and (virtually) meeting neighbours are a few of the pandemic-friendly measures that could help tackle feelings of loneliness and isolation during Covid-19, according to research from Cambridge University. 

A team of researchers from the School of Medicine examined some of the existing literature on interventions against loneliness and social isolation to identify methods of combating loneliness that were in line with social distancing measures. 

Japan has recently appointed 'minister of loneliness' amidst rising levels of stress, loneliness and suicide cause by the pandemic.
Japan has recently appointed 'minister of loneliness' amidst rising levels of stress, loneliness and suicide cause by the pandemic. (AP)

“Lockdown and social distancing measures have meant that many people have little or no contact with others, which can lead to loneliness and isolation,” said Christopher Williams, who headed the study. 

Some of the additional approaches touched on in the study include: educational programmes on friendship and social integration, indoor gardening, regular video conferences with family, mindfulness practices, and reminiscence therapy

One of the reviewed studies found that both robotic and live dogs led to similar reductions in loneliness compared to no intervention. Weekly sessions with an interactive robotic seal or that responds to contact or other stimuli was found to be effective in nursing homes or other care facilities. 

“Many of these activities, such as mindfulness, meditation and talking therapies, could be delivered at a large scale in online groups, potentially at low cost,” said Dr Adam Townson from School of Clinical Medicine at Cambridge. 

The loneliness pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating effect on mental health, triggering depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and other mental health issues for millions of people around the globe. 

Interventions with robotic pets have been used successfully to provide comfort and joy to dementia patients in various care facilities.
Interventions with robotic pets have been used successfully to provide comfort and joy to dementia patients in various care facilities. (AP)

Social distancing and lockdown measures introduced to help combat the spread of the disease has exacerbated existing concerns about the rise in levels of loneliness and social isolation. Both are associated with a host of other illnesses: social isolation can lead to inflammation in the body (signalling an immune response), and a weaker immune system compared to those who are not lonely. Other studies have shown that loneliness is associated with impaired immune functioning.

Research has also demonstrated a relationship between social isolation and loneliness and cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, premature mortality, and other non-communicable diseases. One recent study examining the psychiatric effects of social distancing policies found that loneliness was the main risk factor for depression, anxiety and their comorbidity.  

Many studies looked at initiatives targeting nursing homes in particular, as the elderly are especially vulnerable. 

“A significant problem, however, is that those who are most likely to be lonely or isolated – and most in need of support – may not own, or know how to use, electronic devices and might not have access to a high-speed internet connection,” said Townson. “Any approach to help people suffering from loneliness or social isolation must take digital exclusion into consideration.”

In addition to digital exclusion, further research may be needed for different cultural and socio-economic contexts, and to address the needs of different communities that may have unique vulnerabilities or different approaches or understandings of meaningful relationships,

The literature examined in the Cambridge study all came from English-language journals. 

Source: TRT World