- Lifestyle

The extreme loneliness of lockdown: ‘Even though my partner is here, I’m struggling to cope’

Two days before Ireland went into lockdown, David’s wife, Maureen, went into a hospice. He stayed there with her for 10 days until she died on 3 April, ending her seven-year illness with the neurodegenerative disorder multiple system atrophy. Two days later, she was taken to a funeral home and cremated; under the lockdown rules, David was unable to attend the ceremony.

“The hearse simply drove down our road and the neighbours all came out to clap for her,” he says over the phone from his home in Kerry, his voice cracking with emotion. “That was how I said goodbye after 48 years of us being together.” David is now living alone, experiencing both isolation and loneliness for the first time in half a century.

As the global pandemic has brought a host of new experiences, including working from home, home-schooling and online socialising, it has also, unsurprisingly, increased the loneliness of many people. Some may have felt socially isolated before physical distancing began, while others, such as David, are having to cope with life-altering experiences on their own.

Pamela Qualter, a professor of psychology for education at the University of Manchester, defines loneliness as “not necessarily about being on your own, but about feeling a disconnect with other people – a sense that the relationships you have aren’t satisfying your emotional needs,” she says. “Loneliness is a subjective experience, so it’s not always obvious to us. There are some people who are currently isolated who will not get lonely and there are others who will really struggle.”

In 2018, Qualter led a BBC study into loneliness among the British public that found that, out of the 55,000 respondents, a third said they often feel lonely. It is a situation she believes is being exacerbated by the lockdown. “Our isolation is going to trigger loneliness in many people, some who might never have experienced it for extended periods of time before,” she says. “You might be with your family and feel lonely, since we fall into different roles and hide parts of ourselves with family, or you might feel lonely even if you are video-calling constantly, as that can sometimes emphasise our distance from others.”

At 76 years old, David is among those most vulnerable to loneliness and its associated mental health consequences. Calls to the older people’s helpline the Silver Line have increased by 31% since the outbreak of coronavirus in the UK. In the weeks since Maureen’s death, though, he has been finding new ways to cope. “I’ve been tending to the garden and going for walks with our dog, Titch,” he says. “I’ve also been chatting to the neighbours over the fence and I’ve taken up painting again – I used to be a landscape painter, but it felt wrong to be doing it when Maureen was seriously ill. It’s such a wonderful thing to be able to lose myself in now, though.”

He has also found a way to memorialise Maureen without having had the chance to spread her ashes. “I keep her on a table in the living room with a picture and every time I go out I touch the box and tell her what I’m up to,” he says. “Towards the end, when she couldn’t speak, she wrote on a beach stone that she loves me; I have that there, too – it’s one of my most precious possessions.”

David was one of more than 100 respondents to a Guardian callout on how readers are coping with loneliness during the lockdown. They ranged from university students struggling to adapt to moving back in with their large families to people who had moved abroad for work and are now stuck isolating in a foreign country alone, from parents feeling lonely while attempting to homeschool their children to newly single people.

“I have a four-month-old baby at home and, even though my partner and my parents are here, I’m struggling to cope with the lockdown,” says Nadia (not her real name). “I’ve always loved being around people and I’m so fortunate to have my beautiful baby and such family support, but it’s still so easy to slip into a sense of loneliness.”

Brian Turner, a psychotherapist at the Counselling Directory, defines this situation as “emotional loneliness … This is like the scene you get in a film where someone is singled out in a crowd, held at a standstill when others are moving all around them,” he says. “It shows you that loneliness is an emotional disconnect, not merely a physical distance.”

Turner recommends trying to connect with at least one other person and making space for privacy if you are living in a shared home. “You need to both try to keep up your communication, to tell people if you need space and then also have somewhere to withdraw to,” he says. “We’re built on connection as humans, so isolation can be a confusing time, but if you can build a routine into your day and prioritise your mental health, that will be very important.”

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have already been calling for studies into the mental health effects of coronavirus, which they say is “clearly having a major social and psychological impact on the whole population”. For Nadia, her weekly online therapy sessions have been a much-needed outlet. “I was lucky that, when I signed up for free NHS counselling, it finally came through after the lockdown started,” she says. “I’ve been finding it really helpful talking to my counsellor about my anxieties. She recommended I use a mindfulness app each day, which has been a godsend.” She has also been listening to podcasts, which help create a sense of conversation around her, and watching lots of TV.

Before the lockdown began, the artist Capella was accustomed to being alone. “I would spend the week painting or making things at home, and then when the weekend came I would be down at the market just chatting with everyone I knew,” she says. But with the lockdown and the beginning of chemotherapy treatment after a breast cancer diagnosis in December 2019, things have changed rapidly. “It’s been really difficult adapting to the lockdown, because such a big part of my life was just talking to strangers and meeting new people, but now it feels like that has all been put on hold,” she says, “I’ve been alone before, but this loneliness is new.”

Capella has taken solace in an unlikely place: her chemotherapy nurses. “I have developed a friendship with the nurses at the Royal Marsden when I go once a week to have my catheter flushed,” she says. “To be remembered by a nurse who has her own busy life is such a gift. It’s so lovely to be thought of by someone else; it makes me feel like more than just my diagnosis.”

Another unexpected upside has come from a rekindled relationship with her 16-year-old daughter, who lives with her father in Denmark. “She didn’t take my cancer diagnosis too well and we found it hard to speak for a while,” she says. “But now that she’s in lockdown we’re texting and video-calling all the time. It’s so nice that I’m not having to make videos telling her how to live her life after I’m gone, but rather we can have video calls about online shopping and having fun.”

For NHS workers such as Charlotte, 28, a physiotherapist, working in a hospital has been a saving grace, even though it might be more fraught than normal. “I live on my own and I quite like it usually, but the lockdown has let loneliness creep in,” she says. “It has been so useful being able to go to work every day. Even though it’s stressful – particularly for my colleagues who are on the frontline – we chat to each other and keep our spirits up knowing that we’re all in the same boat.”

Whereas previously her colleagues might not have spoken so readily about their mental health, Charlotte believes the coronavirus pandemic has led to a need for greater help. “The chaplaincy team at the hospital has been amazing throughout this and we’ve all been talking quite openly about the support we might require. It’s made us all very empathetic to each other’s needs.”

Capella says that this empathy has been a positive side-effect of the lockdown. “When I have managed to chat to people on my way into the hospital, I’ve been so pleasantly surprised to hear them talking about their anxieties – it’s something we’re all so shy about usually,” she says. Kate Shurety, the executive director for the Campaign to End Loneliness, agrees. “What we’re experiencing now is what thousands of older people experience all the time,” she says. “It’s a valuable lesson that we should all make an effort to help others when they don’t need to be in that situation and we can use this time to try and build links to our community – something that often gets neglected in big cities.”

While the widespread use of video-calling and messaging has been a key feature of lockdown, it can have its pitfalls, even for the younger generation. Jake, 21, is self-isolating alone in his student house in Manchester and using video-calling to stay in touch with friends and family each day. “We play online quizzes and sometimes even eat our meals together over the screen, but it can be exhausting,” he says. “I think it’s because there’s no background atmosphere so you’re always trying to fill the silences and also not talk over each other.”

Turner says video-calling sometimes has a disassociating effect – one where you can “zone out” of your interaction as your mind becomes confused by the lack of physical connection, despite the visual one. “We have the most technology at the moment, but possibly also the most loneliness,” he says. “It’s important to keep everything in moderation, otherwise you can develop an information overload with too much contact and not enough to say.”

For Jake, there are also financial concerns around the related consequences of the pandemic. He experienced coronavirus symptoms as the lockdown began and decided to isolate at university rather than return to his father’s house. “I’m lucky that I worked enough last summer to build up savings to keep me here, otherwise I’d have nowhere to go,” he says. “The biggest concern among my friends is not really about getting seriously ill, but about how we’ll afford to return to uni or get a job when we graduate, as there’s just no work at the moment. Plus, we’re still spending money on data plans for video-calling and online subscriptions, so I’m not sure how long this can all last.”

In fact, returning to an analogue lifestyle has been helping to keep his anxieties at bay. “Weirdly enough, I’ve been getting into quilting and am finding it very therapeutic, adding a bit every day to my wonky design,” he says. “And I’ve been making sure to exercise a little each day to stick to some kind of routine, otherwise the weeks just bleed into each other.”

Ultimately, this is a difficult time for almost everyone – and acknowledging that is important. “If you are not struggling a bit at the moment, you possibly haven’t understood the severity of what is going on,” says the life coach Michael Bungay Stanier. “Our brains hate uncertainty – we associate it with risk – and now we’re being forced to live it. It’s important to be kind to yourself and not feel like we should fill this time with lists of new year resolutions. Just coping is enough.”

Perhaps David, for all that he has already been through, has the answer. “Life is for living and you have to keep going,” he says. “When Maureen was unable to speak towards the end of her illness, that was real loneliness. But she would still smile and I know that she would want me to keep going now, too. So when this is all over, I’m going to buy a little caravan and do a bit of travelling. It’s important to enjoy things while you can and keep reminding yourself that this, too, shall pass.”

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