Breaking down barriers to social connection

by Louise Rees, Age Concern

My mother tells stories of huddling in a bomb shelter with her whanau and neighbours, singing and joking as German bombs pounded our hometown of Swansea during the Second World War, flattening a large part of the town centre.

New Zealand, like the rest of the world, is now caught up in another global crisis, but instead of huddling together, people are facing unprecedented social restrictions in order to combat the spread of Covid-19. At a time of increased anxiety and hardship for many, we are required to isolate and distance ourselves from others as never before.

The social and psychological effects of the resulting changed patterns of interaction are causing concern amongst experts and policy makers in New Zealand and overseas:

  • Vivek Murthy, former US surgeon general writes about the potential for a worsening social recession in the wake of the virus, as restrictions on social interaction cause our “social muscle” to atrophy.
  • In the UK, a multidisciplinary group of experts have published a position paper in The Lancet on the need for a research strategy to understand the neurological, psychological and social effects of Covid-19 on people who have had the virus, on vulnerable groups, and on the general population.
  • In New Zealand funding has been allocated for research into the mental health effects of the pandemic.

Age Concern is here to help in a crisis

During lockdown, local Age Concerns reported a surge of enquiries from older people who were not online, and were struggling to pay bills, or access groceries. Some of these individuals were also severely lonely (many isolating in a bubble of one) and required social support as well as help to address practical issues.

The Age Concern Accredited Visiting service moved from face-to-face to phone communication during levels 4 and 3. This worked well for some clients, but less well for others, especially those who were hearing-impaired. At level 2, visitors were able visit their clients in person again, but a survey of visiting service volunteers in late June found that 15% had yet to resume in-home visits for a variety of reasons, which included ongoing anxiety about the pandemic.

Advice and information from government

As the pandemic continues to disrupt normal social interaction, individuals, families and organisations face the challenges of maintaining distanced social connection at restrictive alert levels, and then rebuilding our “social muscle” and getting back out there again as restrictions lift. This can be particularly difficult for those who are anxious by nature, or who are facing other challenges.

The New Zealand Office for Seniors website provides information on the impacts of Covid-19 on older New Zealanders. Tracking of selected wellbeing indicators has shown that, whilst young people are still the most likely to be lonely, the increase in loneliness during the pandemic has been greater for older people than for other age groups, particularly for women aged 75+.

Office for Seniors also communicated with key stakeholders in Auckland, and heard from them that:

  • Older people who were vulnerable before the pandemic are struggling, especially those who are digitally isolated.
  • There has been a decline in social participation even at alert level 1, which has been exacerbated by the second lockdown.

The Ministry of Health website offers general  guidance on looking after mental wellbeing during the pandemic, as well as a free 24 hour counselling helpline and other suggestions of where to find help.

Let’s End Loneliness website

In 2018, before Covid-19 existed, seven organisations already concerned about increasing feelings of loneliness in our communities –  Age Concern New Zealand, St John New Zealand, Carers New Zealand, Student Volunteer Army, Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association, Alzheimers New Zealand and The Salvation Army – got together to set up a coalition to work together on tackling the issue.

In August, the group launched the ‘Let’s End Loneliness’ website as a resource for anyone experiencing or concerned about loneliness. The website offers research, news stories, and practical evidence-based ideas on how to tackle loneliness:

  • For ourselves
  • In our community
  • In our workplace

This has never been more relevant. Loneliness is a normal human experience, and most of us will feel lonely at some points during our lives. Right now, though, the pandemic is creating additional barriers to social connection and is causing more people to feel lonely.

This is important because if loneliness goes on for a long time and becomes chronic, it can seriously damage health and wellbeing. So, it’s important to do something about it. The good news is that loneliness can be addressed and solved.

The ‘Let’s End Loneliness’ website is a place to connect with others to learn about loneliness and to share ideas, challenges, and successes. To find out more about loneliness, how to tackle it, where to get help, and how you and your organisation can get involved go to

Together we can end loneliness one person, one community, one workplace at a time.