According to Age UK, there are 1.4 million older people in England experiencing chronic loneliness, and many more throughout the UK.

While lockdown has shone an important spotlight on the impacts of loneliness for older people, sadly these experiences will not simply end when coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

In this guest post, John Ramsay, founder and MD of Social-Ability and its Happiness Programme for care homes, looks at why the end to lockdown is not a silver bullet for loneliness amongst older people and ways to tackle the issue. 

For many older people – and especially those living with dementia – loneliness was already a worrying reality of everyday life. So, now is the crucial moment to address this, with holistic solutions powered by technology to (re)build connections, foster happiness and increase wellbeing for the people we love.  

Recognising chronic loneliness

Lockdown has had a serious impact on the wellbeing of people living with dementia. 56% of people with the condition have reported feeling ‘completely isolated’ since the beginning of the pandemic, while a third of respondents also ‘felt like giving up’ last year.

However, although exacerbated by lockdown, it would be misguided to assume that loneliness is simply a result of the pandemic. Living with dementia can, in itself, be a source of serious isolation for people. In fact, even prior to the pandemic, over a third of people living with dementia said they had felt lonely, according to the Alzheimer’s Society, while a third also said that they had lost friends following a diagnosis.

As human beings, we all thrive on connections – regardless of our age. Not only is this crucial for our mental health, it can be vital in cultivating physical health and overall wellbeing. With research suggesting that loneliness can increase the likelihood of mortality by 26%, its sustained presence in people’s lives could not be more concerning.

Building meaningful connections

Loneliness among people living with dementia is an epidemic we cannot afford to ignore. Positively, there are accessible ways in which carers and families can help to build meaningful connections and, crucially, be part of the happiness of people we love and support.

For example, interactive activities can be an effective way of breaking down barriers and helping people to build meaningful bonds with those who support them, as well as creating a stronger sense of community and empowerment through stimulating activity. Not only can this bring powerful benefits for people’s happiness, sensory activities, such as interactive light-based games, have been shown to improve the condition of those living with dementia at all stages.

Residents exploring interactive lights and games. Fitzroy (left) / Barchester (right)

Happy memories through technology

As restrictions ease, we must not forget the immeasurable role of technology in making connections possible. For instance, the ability to engage with friends and family with regular contact via video link provided a lifeline for people living in care homes through lockdown.

Nonetheless, we know that, even prior to the pandemic, the transition to supported accommodation or residential care could make it harder for people to feel as connected with their friends and families. We also know that visits can be emotionally draining both for individuals and their loved ones.

Often, dementia is thought of in terms of the loss of memories, but these memories can in fact still form the basis of stimulating games. After all, the joy we get from fun, engaging activities is universal – providing an important opportunity for intergenerational play and to create cherished new memories for all of the family. For example, a photograph can be projected through interactive light technology for individuals and their families to colour in together – using treasured memories to create new moments of happiness.

I have seen the benefits of this clearly through our work at Social-Ability. At Alexandra Grange, a Berkshire-based Hallmark care home, residents have been introduced to the Happiness Programme – a first-of-a-kind service that provides interactive technology for individuals and their families alongside structured training and support for care staff. One resident was able to use interactive light projections on her bed, playing a game where she burst bubbles with her grandchildren, and – through the Happiness Programme – rebuild the vocabulary to communicate with her family.

An important step forward

Clearly, the end to lockdown will not be a silver bullet for ending loneliness amongst people living with dementia, but it could be a vital moment to take stock of the needs of the people we love and support.

Technology has been a lifeline during the pandemic, but I believe it is a tool rather than the end-goal. With effective training and support for staff, the use of technology can be sustained for the long-term, becoming part of daily routine in order to deliver high-quality, personalised care. In the fight against loneliness, technology has a crucial role to play – bringing people, their families, carers and care home communities together to build meaningful connections, improve wellbeing and create truly happy times.

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