Combatting social isolation – lessons learnt from the Covid-19 experience

older woman sitting at window staring out

Most social services organisations are already aware of the challenges of social isolation, especially for the elderly and those with chronic health conditions or disabilities. Because of the need for people to self-isolate at home during the Covid-19 crisis, loneliness now has more attention than ever before. We spoke to five social services organisations, as well as the City of Sydney Council, to hear about how they are combatting social isolation during the crisis, and what will be needed going forward.

Why does loneliness matter?

The evidence on the impacts of loneliness is startling. Research has found that loneliness poses as much of a risk to our health as smoking or obesity.1 In old age, it can contribute to faster rates of cognitive decline and dementia, as well as physical illness and premature death.2

One in five Australian adults experience loneliness, with the highest rates among people over 75.3 Aged care residents in particular experience high rates of loneliness – despite being surrounded by people, meaningful social interaction can be lacking.4 With many vital sources of social interaction now cut off, there’s potential for these experiences to become more common. It’s a crucial time to provide extra support for our elders and those vulnerable to loneliness and explore alternative options for social connection.

Homecare Hero young man next to older man with rugby ball and another young man
Homecare Hero Nick with Ben and Jackson, pre-Covid-19 (photo supplied)

While organisations in the social sector have always been aware of this issue, it has come into much sharper focus during the current crisis. “We’ve been talking about loneliness and mental health for years,” says Mathieu Bertrand, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Home Care Heroes, which connects local ‘heroes’ to people needing social support and companionship. “In the past it was a challenge to convince people of its importance, but now that everyone’s stuck at home, more people are realising just how hard it can be and taking it more seriously.”

What are organisations doing to combat loneliness?

Organisations have been quick to adapt their programs to the Covid-19 environment. While some essential face-to-face services are going ahead (with added precautions), other services have been redesigned or moved online.

Getting creative with online platforms

Many organisations have shifted group activities and meetings online, using people’s personal devices, or sourcing donated ones, to ensure they are able to continue their regular activities.

Beehive Industries, a Sydney-based social enterprise that supports seniors, the long-term unemployed and people living with disability, has had to close most of its normal programs. Loneliness is a huge concern for CEO Brendan Lonergan, but he and his team have been quick to adapt to ensure people can stay connected. “About 80% of our people are over 65 and not everyone has a nice home to self-isolate in, not everyone has internet or even a phone. We’re looking to source smart devices we can distribute so that people can take part in online activities such as video calls.”

group of older people preparing food in a cooking class being filmed
Filming a cooking class at Beehives Industries pre-Covid-19 (photo supplied)

In addition to distributing devices, Beehive Industries is running virtual cooking classes to help people stay connected. “We’re promoting a ‘virtual dinner’ concept – the idea is that people prepare the same meal, each in their own home, then prop up the smartphone on the table and share a meal together,” says Lonergan. “We’ve got some great recipes – put together by a Masterchef contestant – but it’s really a vehicle for a conversation.”

Home Care Heroes is also thinking outside the box when it comes to virtual activities. “Our heroes are doing some really fun and funky things,” says Bertrand. “We’ve got one person doing group piano lessons online, another ran a virtual Dungeons and Dragons tournament!”

Vitality Club, a provider of allied health and other aged care services in Sydney, emphasises the need for flexibility. “We’ve moved our exercise classes to Zoom. It’s really variable, some people are really good at the tech, for others it might not work, or they might need extra support especially with the initial setup,” explains Gemma Whitley, Operations Manager. “We’re working on different solutions that work for each person.”

Community mental health service, Flourish, has been surprised by the success of some of its new online programs. “Some of the new [online] things we are doing have had such great outcomes that we plan to continue with them once the Activity Centre re-opens,” says Ruby Golding, Manager of Westclub Penrith, Flourish.

Engaging volunteers and partners, but in different ways

Volunteers and partnerships have always been a critical part of the social sector. They are now as important as ever, but what’s ‘asked’ of them has changed.

Aged care providers often engage volunteers to help provide friendship and companionship to older people experiencing isolation. While face-to-face visits have had to cease, alternatives are available. For example, Catholic Healthcare is encouraging its volunteers to send letters, make phone calls or arrange videocalls where possible. As Sue Norman, Volunteer Manager for Catholic Healthcare says, “It’s a case-by-case approach. We try to encourage whatever is going to have the most benefit for the resident. Sometimes phone or videocalls can be really hard, especially if the person has hearing or vision loss, but a letter from a friend can really bring a smile to their face.”

Beehive Industries has a network of corporate volunteers who it’s now calling on to help prepare smart devices for distribution. “We’re working with corporate volunteers, who might have some more downtime right now, to pre-load apps on the devices and write some really simple instructions to make it easier for people to get online,” says Lonergan

Home Care Heroes has partnered up with social enterprise Who Gives a Crap, to distribute gift bags with rolls of brightly packaged toilet paper in them, as a novel way of reaching out to clients while also providing a household staple that’s in short supply. “There’s a lot of content out there about Covid and it’s all very similar. This is a little different and kind of fun,” says Bertrand

Allowing extra time for social interaction

For many organisations, it’s about giving employees the space to provide extra support to their clients and people in their communities. Several people we spoke to emphasised the importance of drawing on existing relationships with healthcare and other support workers, to ensure people are not cut off during this time.

“Why not allow space for the people who are already there, doing the essential services, to spend a bit more time checking in, whether they need any extra support?” says Whitley at Vitality Club. “For us it just seems like the right thing to do.”

Like other local councils, the City of Sydney is one of the key providers of social infrastructure in its local area. Because of the crisis, its libraries, community centres, exercise and fitness centres have all had to close, but employees are taking time to reach out to local residents who might feel cut off.

Councillor Jess Scully, Deputy Lord Mayor, City of Sydney explains, “In our case, there are both the City of Sydney’s formal programs and the more personal responses that we’re hearing from some employees. Those are often the most heart-warming stories.

“For example, we’ve heard of librarians who are ringing people up, helping them access ebooks, making sure that just because the libraries are closed, they’re not missing out. They are doing this because they know their community and really care.”

What have we learned?

While this crisis is likely far from over, we are already seeing lessons emerge. A key question on many people’s minds is ‘What happens after this?’ For many social organisations, the hope is that things do not go back to ‘normal’.

“There’s lots of interesting stuff happening now, let’s hope this becomes a staple for the future,” says Lonergan “We don’t want to go back to what we had before.”

Perceptions are shifting – hopefully for the long term

The internet is full of uplifting stories of people reaching out to help their neighbours during this crisis. Many are viewing this as a chance to discover new ways of connecting within our communities. There’s an opportunity to harness this momentum to drive a shift in the way we think about our elderly and the contribution they make to our society.

“Wouldn’t it be great if this triggered a different way of thinking about our elders?” says Lonergan. “So many kids are studying at home now, their parents are busy, what if we could connect them to an older person at home who could help them out?

“What if school kids could ring up an older person to get a firsthand history lesson, rather than reading about it in some old textbook? This kind of thing could be powerful for kids, plus it lets older people know that their stories matter.”

Limitations that once seemed insurmountable are now disappearing

As organisations have been challenged to quickly adapt their operations, they’ve discovered new possibilities. In some cases these have the potential to extend into the future.

“We’re so often limited by trying to match people in the same geographic area, but now that’s all changed,” says Norman at Catholic Healthcare. “We’re thinking about how to expand the use of phone calls and letter writing to support people who might’ve been hard to match up to a visitor before.”

As Bertrand says, “There’s so much demand out there. It was already on our radar to expand into video-based supports, but now we’re accelerating that.”

While technology alone will not solve the issue, there’s evidence that virtual communication can be effective at reducing loneliness.5 Coming out of this crisis, there’s an opportunity for service providers to rethink the way they incorporate technology into their programs, especially where it can help them to broaden their reach.

Funding for social services is more important now than ever

At the same time that organisations are rapidly adapting services and responding to emerging needs, they’re also often working with fewer resources. Many workers have been sent home and some sources of revenue have dried up.

Federal, state and local governments are responding with various financial support options, including funding for organisations combatting social isolation. (See below for a quick guide for non-profits on Government opportunities during Covid-19). The challenge for funders is not to lose sight of this important issue once initial crisis spending wraps up. Providers will need ongoing support as their organisations recover, with flexibility to use funding where they need it most. “A lot of organisations are struggling,” says Lonergan. “What is really needed is money for the basics, especially staff costs. A lot of grants don’t cover staff wages, but we can’t run without staff. Who can?”

The efforts of social services organisations so far are commendable. Looking ahead, it’s critical that they are supported to carry on this essential work. Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully sums it up well. “Coming out of this, we need to make sure we don’t see cuts to vital social services. There’s a challenge to all of us to stay vigilant, to not forget those who helped get us through this crisis.”

 

Additional resources for social services organisations

SVA has compiled a quick guide for non-profits on government opportunities during Covid-19.

Many local councils have special grant and support programs. For example, The City of Sydney has grants available and is offering assistance to help organisations find and apply for support. Contact CityConcierge@cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au


Notes

1 Campaign to End Loneliness, ‘Risk to health’

2 Ibid

3 Relationships Australia, 2018, Is Australia experiencing an epidemic of loneliness? Findings from 16 waves of the HILDA survey,

4 Barbara Neves, ABC Radio National, 2019, I spent five years speaking with people in nursing homes. This is what I learned about loneliness,

5 Ibid