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Is 'Eleanor Rigby' the soundtrack of your life? Experts say there are ways to deal with loneliness

There are things you can do to alleviate loneliness, even in the midst of COVID
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Eleanor Rigby could be your neighbour, co-worker or family member.

All the lonely people these days come from all walks of life.

Mental health experts say loneliness is a problem that has been growing exponentially and COVID 19 has put it on steroids.

And while Sault Ste. Marie has support organizations such as the seniors centre and easy access to nature trails, people to get up and take the first steps.

Easier said than done during a pandemic when those who already struggle with making personal connections are told to hunker down away from extended family and friends.

Loneliness is serious.

Research shows it can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Isolation leads to more unhealthy ways of coping such as overeating, drinking and smoking.

Pollara Strategic Insights conducted a survey outlining the mental health impact of COVID.

It reveals 57 per cent of Ontarians are lonelier since the start of the pandemic, 47 per cent wish they had someone to talk to, and 36 per cent say they are often, very often or almost always lonely.

“Ontarians continue to believe that as the outbreak wears on, there will be a strain on mental health that could turn out to be a crisis,” according to the survey.

Just a third (35 per cent) of roughly 1,000 Ontarians rated their current state ‘very good’ or ‘excellent' in terms of mental health, a substantial decrease from the 52 per cent reading from the first poll conducted last May.

There were some mixed findings when it came to relationships:

  • 25 per cent say their relationship with partners is better now than before the pandemic, while 29 per cent say their relationship with children is better
  • However, 36 per cent say friendships are worse and 27 per cent say relationships with parents are worse
  • Among the most difficult aspects of the pandemic have been not seeing extended family (74 per cent) and friends (78 per cent)

Problems associated with loneliness will likely continue after COVID because it’s become a structural issue in society.

The trend toward smaller families and families that are more dispersed geographically makes it difficult to maintain close relationships. Marriage and secure jobs are coming later in life, if at all.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of people living alone over the past 35 years has more than doubled, from 1.7 million in 1981 to four million in 2016, making it the most common type of household in the country.

In 2018, The United Kingdom actually appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Prime Minister Theresa May said when announcing the new position.

The minister, Tracey Crouch, told Time Magazine that the U.K. largely focused on the elderly when addressing issues of loneliness, but social isolation hit all levels of society. “Data shows that in Britain and the U.S., poor, unemployed, disabled and migrant populations tend to suffer most from loneliness and isolation—and typically struggle to access adequate support,” Crouch said in the article.

The article also pointed out that 16-to-24-year-olds reported feeling more lonely than pensioners between the ages of 65 to 74.

Senior citizens can be at a high risk of loneliness but in Sault Ste. Marie a number of seniors are taking proactive approaches to combat feelings of isolation, says Rick Borean, supervisor of senior services for the City of Sault Ste. Marie.

“The biggest thing we have been able to do is to provide the programming for seniors to communicate with each other,” said Borean, when speaking about Zoom and on-line initiatives during COVID.

“Since May we've reached between 4,000-6,000 senior attendees. This has attributed to much success to our programs and has allowed continued quality connection for those that may be unable to attend programs in-house,” he said.

The array of programs includes fitness, yoga, dance, painting, quilting, meditation, and a variety of educational presentations.

Lately, the most important aspect has been simply socializing.

“It has been phenomenally received,” said Borean. “A lot of times we start a class a bit earlier. It gives seniors a chance to connect. They can catch up on things.”

There is no Zoom session time limit. A recent session scheduled for an hour went on for two-and-a-half hours.

Skepticism about seniors adapting to technology should also be put to bed.

“I always tell the seniors that you teach us,” said Borean. “They teach us different tricks they found on Zoom. They’re experimenting and they’re loving it.”

He admits there is no substitute for in-person connection, but learning more about on-line options gives seniors a great opportunity to stay in touch with each other and with family who often live outside the city.

“As crazy as it has been, there have been a lot of positives that have come out of this,” said Borean when describing what the post-COVID senior community can look like.

One stumbling block is access to technology and internet costs being added to fixed budgets of senior citizens.

Borean hopes the centre will be able to gather a collection of tablets that can be loaned out and new computers to provide more opportunity.

Reaching just one senior who may have not been online before is a great achievement, he said.

For non-seniors – especially young adults – there’s usually little problem navigating the Internet, but they are still susceptible to loneliness.

According to Pollara’s COVID research, “younger Canadians, ages 18 to 34, are the group who tend to be the most vulnerable to a decline in mental health. The economic decline, ability to make ends meet financially, and social isolation are disproportionately having a negative impact on this group’s mental health. They are also less likely to be optimistic about their ability to recover and are less likely to be receiving treatment.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association says loneliness and being alone are not the same.

“Loneliness includes feelings of isolation and disconnection from friends, family and/or the community,” says the association website. “It’s a feeling that one doesn’t belong. Loneliness can be temporary or long-term and it’s a state that can change during a person’s life.”

This is underscored by Dr. Nasreen Khatri, an award-winning clinical psychologist and educator, who said loneliness can even affect us at work.

“Modern workplace factors such as longer work hours, blurred lines between work and personal life, working remotely, and changing jobs frequently, all add to feelings of loneliness in employees,” she wrote on a website called Lifespeak.

Fortunately, an important part of the solution is literally in our backyards.

The Pollara survey found “Canadians report that getting outdoors is the best activity to support positive mental health, with two-fifths of Canadians indicating a positive impact on mental health even during the winter months.”

Being outdoors scored better than working out, reading or other forms of entertainment.

These results highlight the importance and value of our local trails and walkways.

COVID has shone a light on mental health and mental health resources.

“I would suggest for anyone that is experiencing any symptoms that are making it difficult to live their lives and do the things that are important to them and anything that is lasting longer than a couple of weeks – people should reach out for help,” said Lisa Carricato of the Sault CMHA.

“Video calls, texts. Zoom are all great ways to reach out and connect. It doesn’t replace in-person contact – that is still so important, but until it is safe for people to get together, it is another option.”

“We are social creatures; young and old,” added Borean.

Here are some tips from Dr. Khatri on how to lose loneliness:

  1. Become aware and name that you feel lonely. Write down your thoughts and feelings and try to discover the gaps in your social experience.

  2. Gain perspective. Consider how our changing social structures enable loneliness. Due to things like later marriage, divorce, geographical moves for work and education, people often find themselves at loose ends socially, many times in life. And especially now with mandated social distancing, it is only natural to feel an increase in loneliness when we may be separated from family and friends. Be kind to yourself and know that there is nothing wrong with you.

  3. Become socially creative regarding COVID-19 related life changes. Being creative and learning new ways to work and connect with others is key. Set aside time to meet family, friends, and coworkers through phone calls, Skype, FaceTime, email, texting, and even writing old-fashioned letters! It’s the little things that count – sharing a joke, pictures, and music.

  4. Make relationships a priority. There is no substitute for developing and sustaining ties, even if they are bite-sized (think 10-minute conversations with a friend). Other ways to focus on socializing is by volunteering at a social distance or joining a personal interest group (e.g., a virtual game or book club).

  5. Prioritize sleep. Studies show that a good night’s sleep makes us feel less lonely and better equipped to enjoy the day.

  6. Make good use of “me time”. Just as it is essential to connect with others, it’s important to spend some of our alone time connecting with ourselves, be that through nature, hobbies, or in mindfulness practice to feel comfortable and benefit from healthy solitude. During COVID-19, we can plan for how we would like our relationships to be once the pandemic is over. It is a time to dream, think, and plan to optimize our relationships now and once the pandemic is over.

  7. Practice relaxation. Even a few minutes a day of breathing exercises, light stretching, yoga, meditation, journaling, and other quiet activities can calm the body and the mind.

  8. Exercise. Daily exercise, indoors or outdoors, improves physical, emotional, and mental health, including decreasing loneliness and improving mood.

  9. Enjoy nature. Research shows that we are healthier when we are close to nature. If you are unable to go outside, you may try a little gardening or buying plants, herbs, and flowers for your home.

  10. Cultivate gratitude. Taking stock and being grateful for the connections and relationships in our lives creates the confident, open mindset that makes new connections more likely to happen.