Opinion: The pandemic has heightened our awareness of loneliness and isolation, but the problem has always been with us.

Vancouver Sun – December 14, 2020

Winter is here. The nights are growing longer, and the days are getting colder. Fortunately, December has arrived with its colourful lights and bright decorations to shine in the dark. It’s the time of year where we traditionally see family feasts, children’s concerts and other seasonal events, all filled with friendship and kinship to keep us warm.

Whatever your religion, whatever your holiday traditions, they’re almost certainly designed to be shared with friends and family. It’s a very social time of year — but not for everyone.

Particularly, this year, the winter season is going to be markedly different. This year, many more of us will be home alone for the holidays.

I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be home alone. Wondering if, perhaps, society’s shared experience of COVID-19 might provide some insight about social isolation and more particularly, loneliness.

The pandemic has forced us to distance ourselves from one another, and this enforced physical distancing, and social isolation of any kind, has very real impacts on our holistic quality of life, including our physical, mental, social and cognitive health. It’s not just the absence of connection that’s harmful, the quality of connection matters. It’s not enough to have people around you, it’s important to feel connected to them.

Research shows that prolonged social isolation and loneliness is associated with increased risk of mortality, and some have likened this to being as bad for our health as abusing alcohol and smoking. The pandemic has heightened our awareness of this reality, but the problem has always been with us.

Loneliness can be experienced by anyone at any age. Adolescents are vulnerable to it and becoming an adult doesn’t come with any guarantees against it. A change in life circumstances, like a divorce or job loss, can disrupt one’s social network and sever social connections.

Loneliness is also experienced in marginalized populations by people of all ages — it can be part of the reality of living in poverty, being an immigrant, a person-of-colour, someone who is LGBTQ or living with a disability. Simply growing older can cause social isolation and create feelings of deepened loneliness. Natural life transitions like retirement can bring with them a social disconnect. Mobility problems, vision and hearing loss can contribute to social isolation, as do things like the loss of a spouse, health issues, a lower income and a change in social status.

And right now, during the pandemic, the experience of social isolation and loneliness for older adults is particularly heightened. Not only that, but it’s older adults — particularly those who live in long-term care facilities — who have disproportionately been victims of COVID-19.

You would think that the shared experience of the loneliness and social isolation brought on by the pandemic would make us more caring, fill us with empathy — but while that’s true for many of us, a look at the evening’s headlines or a quick scan of the online comments’ section shows a profound lack of compassion.

There is a perception that COVID-19 is an old person’s problem, which has little or nothing to do with us and that the high mortality rates among older adults are somehow acceptable. There is a distancing and “othering” that gives people permission to turn a blind eye. The irony, of course, is that the pain of this disconnection hurts everyone — the person who is isolated is alone and suffering while the society that doesn’t see that person grows cold and callous. That isn’t the kind of world most of us want.

So, let’s help lead the way to a better world by changing the way we think about aging. Aging is something that starts on the day we’re born, so why not think of it as a continuum. In this way, we can shift the culture toward an intergenerational understanding of aging, one that helps us shape systems and design services that make the connection between young and old and in-between — one in which we support each other through every age and stage of life.

If you’re home alone this holiday season, remember there are better days ahead. As Dr. Bonnie Henry reminds us, the pandemic won’t last forever. Please know there are people who care about you. If you’re 65 or older, you can dial 211 and ask to have someone give you a friendly call, through the Safe Seniors, Strong Communities initiative.

As we prepare to usher in a new year, I’d like to urge everyone to try looking at the world with new eyes. Eyes that see suffering, and don’t look away. Eyes that recognize that a person’s worth doesn’t depend on what they do or accomplish or produce. Eyes that look kindly on every person they see.

We are, everyone one of us, deserving of respect and, when necessary, care and protection.

Kahir Lalji is a gerontologist with a Masters of Gerontology from Simon Fraser University and the provincial director of Healthy Aging by the United Way, and executive director of the United Way Southern Interior B.C. He serves on the board of HelpAge Canada, BC211 and Destination Imagination.