Being alone or isolated is proven to have a negative impact on health and wellbeing including mental health, especially in the elder population. For an older adult, even one who has never smoked a day in their life, isolation is as unhealthy as chain-smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Earlier this week, Robin Wright of The New Yorker wrote about a 2015 study examining the impact of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Brigham Young University. Holt-Lunstad’s study revealed that "Loneliness increased the rate of early death by 26 percent; social isolation led to an increased rate of mortality of 29 percent, and living alone by 32 percent.”
Holt-Lunstad’s report went on to say, "Loneliness is not just a feeling. It’s a biological warning signal to seek out other humans, much as hunger is a signal that leads a person to seek out food, or thirst is a signal to hunt for water.”
Now imagine the impact of isolation and loneliness during a crisis like the one we are presently experiencing. Today isolation is critical to survival despite its negative health implications.
In her New Yorker article Wright adds, "During the coronavirus pandemic, the loneliness signal may increase for many—with limited ways of alleviating it.” She continues, “I live alone and have no family, and usually don’t think much about it. But, as the new pathogen forces us to socially distance, I have begun to feel lonely. I miss the ability to see, converse with, hug, or spend time with friends.” Concludes Wright,
"Life seems shallower,
more like survival than living."
Fortunately while social or physical distancing, most people can and are reaching out by phone, text, email and video to stay connected. They are using their devices and the occasion to engage with others, entertain, vent (or rant), offer solutions, and check on the health and wellbeing of others.
Recently, Martin, age 58, went home from work feeling ill. He phoned in sick the next day and was immediately told to self-isolate for fourteen days. Two weeks is the norm now, anything less seems unsympathetic.
Martin lives alone making isolation easier, in theory. Still, family and friends regularly check in on him by phone and text. Staying connected gives everyone, Martin, his family and friends, some comfort. A few days into his self isolation, Martin did not respond to a number of morning texts and naturally people grew concerned. They called on more people to reach out in hopes of an answer. Martin eventually surfaced; it turns out he had his phone off while catching up on much needed rest.
Even when people have the means to connect, distance and isolation can be unnerving.
What about those without the means, those without a phone, without access to wifi, a computer and email? First of all, who in this day and age doesn’t have a phone, right?!
In Canada, 83 percent of households have at least one phone. In the States, that number is 90 percent. That’s households. Now compare that to the house-less. As an example, according to a study in Philadelphia by Karin M. Eyrich-Garg, only 44 percent of homeless adults have a phone.
Other surveys suggest higher percentages but there are also other considerations, like where does someone who is homeless charge their phone when the battery dies? Possibly at a nearby fast-food restaurant where they can escape the cold and wet, sit for a while, and re-charge. With restaurants open to take-out only — no seated dining permitted — again, where do people who are homeless charge their phones?
A 2019 California Health Report suggests that, of the homeless men and women age fifty and older in a city of Oakland study, 75 percent had a phone but "two thirds of those had no internet access. Fewer than 40 percent of those in the study had accessed the internet in the previous month.”
“Phones have become more affordable,” the report states, "but disposables create their own problems. They have a finite number of minutes and are useless when those run out, requiring a new phone and number."
For people who are homeless and phone-less, the impact of isolation during the COVID-19 crisis goes beyond loneliness.
People who are homeless do not necessarily have the luxury of connectivity, to family at a distance or to information available to the general population, and it’s that isolation that leaves them even more exposed and vulnerable.
In a recent story in the Washington Post, "Homeless outreach workers say they are struggling to get critical information about the virus to homeless people who are without the internet and, in many cases, unaware of the dangers posed by the coronavirus.” Those responsible for getting the word out, including a large number of volunteers, "are staying home”. Their only option for reaching out to the homeless community is by telephone.
In Canada’s largest city, there is a homeless population of 10,000+ people on any given night. The majority are men. Many are clients of Haven Toronto, the only drop-in centre in the country dedicated to elder men age fifty-plus. Today those men access updates in much the same way they first found out about the drop-in centre, by word-of-mouth from other clients, and from information shared by Haven Toronto staff.
Despite all of the closures, a list that seemingly grows daily, Haven Toronto continues to support the most vulnerable community, providing a safe environment for clients to access vital supports like their mail including cheques and, equally important, letters from family and friends. For elder men without a home, Haven Toronto is their mailing address.
Haven Toronto also offers take-away meals at breakfast and lunch, showers and laundry, and the support of a full-time nurse, with adjustments to service delivery respecting the need for distancing and taking all necessary precautions to protect clients and staff.
On social media, Haven Toronto’s Executive Director, Lauro Monteiro recently posted, “A homeless man is outside, standing in the pouring rain, and eating his hot lunch.” The man’s biggest concern, making sure we know he respects and appreciates Haven Toronto "for being here, most others aren’t.”
"We hear you; we answered the call."