I was reading an article about the effects of pandemic isolation on seniors, when this part jumped out at me:
After the pandemic hit, some seniors felt a dramatic worsening of loneliness and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, after which things perhaps stabilized a bit as the pandemic progressed. Others — probably those who were already very isolated, Perissinotto notes — weren’t very affected, likely because the pandemic didn’t change much about their level of social contact.
The seniors who “weren’t very affected,” because they were already very isolated before the pandemic – yes, the pandemic may not have affected them as much, because you can’t make a rock-bottom situation worse. The deep levels of loneliness, anxiety, or depression predate the social distancing measures.
Living alone, sometimes with only a T.V. to listen to, day in and day out, is a way of life for many people. A tiny number may relish it (you’d have to ask them), but the vast majority of people would never choose such unrelenting isolation.
A bunch of articles came out early in the pandemic (like this one) about the need to reach out to isolated older adults. I hope more people realize that this is a long-standing problem, and it continues now.
What can a Minister of Loneliness do for you?
Last year, a report came out about a new Minister of Loneliness in Japan, who is tasked with figuring out what to do about social isolation, poor mental health, and the country’s low birth rate. That’s a lot on the shoulders of one politician. I wonder, what can the government do, in a country where some elderly women like going to jail so that they won’t feel so terribly lonely and invisible?
The government can exert some influence, such as making certain mental health services more accessible or funding a new community center for seniors. But it can’t single-handedly change various underlying attitudes and incentives. Short of massively and forcibly restructuring society, what can the government do about long work hours, long commutes, nights spent in the company of online avatars, and people’s persistent feeling of invisibility?
Japan isn’t the only country that has created a government position aimed at fighting loneliness and its secondary effects, including awful mental health. In 2018, the U.K. also appointed a Minister of Loneliness to primarily address social isolation among elderly people. The results, discussed in this article, are so far underwhelming. And the article got published in January 2020, right before the pandemic. (Spotting the date of the article made me wince.)