The Coronavirus lockdown highlights how social communities protect elderly from loneliness

Joan Frank is one of 430.000 Danes over 65 who lives alone. Photo: Jonas Bisgaard Kristensen

Research from the University of Copenhagen suggests that people over 65 are feeling less lonely than the average population during the corona crisis. But an expert questions the data and disagrees with the conclusion. He points to social communities as a measure of battling loneliness.

As a child, Joan Frank was terrified of boredom because her father always told her that intelligent people don’t get bored.

Maybe this is the reason why she is always on the run even now that she is almost 70 years old. Every day, her calendar is full of appointments and activities to attend. Or at least her calendar used to be. Like every other person, Joan’s life has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Her days are now mostly spent within the four walls of her red brick suburban house in the outskirts of a small town in Denmark called Hobro.

According to DaneAge, a non-profit organization with 900,000 members, at least 50,000 Danes over 65 were lonely before the Covid-19 lockdown. Joan was not one of them. And she does not want the virus to make her feel lonely – or god forbid bored.

But she is one of 430,000 people over the age of 65 who live alone in Denmark. That counts for more than seven per cent of the country’s entire population of 5,8 million people.

With the Danish lockdown having started in the middle of March, many of these people have been and still are at risk of becoming lonely. For the first four weeks of the lockdown, Joan hardly saw another person. She is however not worried about solitude.

‘’In my opinion, you have the responsibility for your own life. You will not improve your life by feeling that it is someone else’s responsibility for you to have a good life. You have to initiate something yourself,’’ she says.

Many are worried and feel unwell
According to results from the University of Copenhagen, Joan is not alone in not feeling lonely during the lockdown. Researchers from the university’s Department of Public Health are investigating how the corona crisis is experienced and being managed amongst various vulnerable groups in Denmark. Their figures show that older people over 65 years feel less lonely than the general population during the pandemic.

But DaneAge does not fully agree with the results. The study measures loneliness on a scale from zero to six and then uses the average from every participating group. So if two people score six and two people score zero, the number used in the study will, therefore, be three – a method that according to DaneAge is not common in research on this topic because only severe loneliness is relevant in their opinion.

The organization also questions the study’s conclusion. When compared to how lonely the older generations felt before corona, the data actually suggests the opposite of what the study has concluded, according to DaneAge.

‘’Usually, the old generations only feel lonely about half as much as the average population. So when this new study suggests that there is a modest difference, it actually suggests that they have experienced more loneliness during corona than usual,’’ says David Vincent Nielsen, loneliness consultant at DaneAge.

According to him, it is impossible yet to put an exact figure on how many people feel lonely during the lockdown. But he explains that the organization experiences a rise in old people contacting them these days because they feel unwell. They are worried, feel lonely and have a difficult time.

‘’Everyone has been told that people over 65 are in the risk group and they are all told to follow the guidelines and stay at home. Thousands of people have been sitting alone in their houses and apartments and have had very little contact with society around them,’’ David Vincent Nielsen says.

Community of 70 sisters
In Hobro, Joan Frank is a member of the local branch of the worldwide Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge. This gives her access to a rich social life with around 70 other women. They call each other ‘sisters’. Some are older than she is, and to those women, corona has had big consequences.

‘’The lodge means a lot to many people. It is what ensures that something happens in their lives and that they get out,’’ Joan Frank says.

Because of Covid-19, all Danish Odd Fellow lodges have cancelled all meetings and activities until August 15. They can no longer be together, eat together or sing together. With Joan not feeling lonely herself, she and others have the capacity to help those members who do feel lonely.

‘’We talk on the phone all the time – we call the other members that we know are lonely. It means a lot that we have each other because if you feel like talking, you have 70 people that you can call,’’ she says.

New initiative during corona
Telephones are also a part of how DaneAge tries to battle loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic. The organization has around 20,000 volunteers of which some take part in an initiative where they visit elderly lonely people. But because of the risk of spreading the virus, these arrangements have had to stop.

Instead, a new initiative has been born where volunteers now have to call the elderly. By April 24, 600 volunteers had started as ‘’phone friends’’ whilst in total 3000 people had signed up for the new initiative.

One of them is Tove Dagø. Before the coronavirus, she also volunteered at a nursing home where she would do chairs gymnastics with the residents.

‘’It is such a nice feeling when you do something for another person. You can feel and sense just how incredibly happy they become. That is enough for me,’’ she says.

‘’The way they look at me when I arrive to do gymnastics with them… their eyes just light up and they enthusiastically greet me. Because I’m not boring – I have fun with them and I joke with them. We sing songs together and when I ride home on my bike, I keep singing. It makes them happy and it’s just wonderful,’’ Tove Dagø says.

‘’We are not overestimating the problem’’
Now that she cannot do her gymnastics anymore, she wants to keep helping whichever way she can. Through the phone friend initiative, DaneAge has matched her with a woman who has signed up to receive calls. 

But Tove Dagø has contacted DaneAge to hear if she can be matched with someone else. 

‘’The woman I have spoken to a couple of times now also calls regularly with someone else. I do not consider her to need my company because she is engaged in a lot of different activities. I would like them to match me with someone who really needs it so that I can feel that I am making a difference,’’ she says.

David Vincent Nielsen is one of the employees at DaneAge who has matched people for the new arrangement. He does not believe that the experience of Tove Dagø suggests that the organization overestimates loneliness as a problem.

‘’I certainly do not think so. We do not make a detailed questioning – if we have enough volunteers, everyone will get a phone friend because how do you decide who needs one and who does not? Objective criteria cannot determine loneliness because it is a subjective emotion. It depends on your individual needs – if you do not need a phone friend, why would you sign up to get one?’’, he says.

Social prescribing
One of the lodge members in Hobro that Joan Frank helps and speaks to regularly on the phone is Else, a 90-year-old woman living alone.

‘’She is very, very lonely,’’ Joan says.

And to be included in a social community like the lodge in Hobro is a good way of dealing with loneliness according to David Vincent Nielsen. When the corona crisis is over, he hopes that Danish politicians will look towards the United Kingdom in the battle against feeling alone.

Here, the National Health Service (NHS) work with the term ‘’social prescribing’’ which means that amongst others, general practice doctors can refer people who are lonely to a so-called link worker. According to NHS England’s webpage, the link workers will ‘’give time, focusing on ‘what matters to me’ and taking a holistic approach to people’s health and wellbeing. They connect people to community groups and statutory services for practical and emotional support.’’

In short, doctors can help lonely people become part of social communities. This is also relevant in Denmark because every day, up to 1000 people visit their doctor fully or partially because they are lonely.

‘’If doctors then knew of for instance a billiard club, they could ask the lonely person if he or she wanted to go. General practice doctors could be a big help by building bridges in this way’’, David Vincent Nielsen says.

It’s okay being bored
Back in Hobro, Joan Frank reflects on what the lockdown has done to her and her fellow members of the lodge. Even though she firmly believes that each person is responsible for his or her own well-being, she is grateful for the community she has with the 70 other female fellows.

Here, many years after being taught as a child that boredom was reserved for the ignorant, she has now realized that a bit of dullness isn’t so bad after all.

‘’I have learned that I used to get annoyed about little things that I did have time to get done. I used to have so many activities to do, but I have actually appreciated having more time for myself during the lockdown. I don’t have to do something all the time – that realisation has made me more calm and grounded,’’ she says.

But with that said, she cannot wait for society to fully re-open so that she can once again go to concerts, see her grandkids and not least meet, sing and eat with her 70 sisters in Hobro.

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