One of the most notable and worrying aspects of being an older person during the lockdown may be the stark reality of being isolated. When we think about people being isolated, we typically think about isolation geographically: people being disconnected from other people across different locations. But isolation is not always best understood in terms of ‘being apart from others’. And the ethical worry about being isolated is not just about the negative consequences that isolation has on older people - the experience of loneliness or sadness, for example.
Sometimes it can be better to understand isolation in terms of ‘being prevented from doing’. This means that when older people are isolated, they are unable to live their lives in ways that we can all recognise as being valuable and worthy of protection. Understood like this, isolation is an ethical problem that societies need to address because of the ways in which it limits the activities that older adults are able to take part in and choose between.
Supporting isolated older adults during a pandemic is a social project. Members of local communities will need to respond in innovative ways to engage older people in social activities through their everyday interactions, as neighbours, volunteers, and even as strangers passing on the street. This is the route out of isolation, and the path towards a good life, for the oldest members of our communities.
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Peggy (95), was born in Bow and is a Londoner ‘born and bred’: 'I go to two lunch clubs and I help out at one of them. I miss that, I miss getting up and having a purpose. You get up now and (think) ‘what should I do? I’d better bake, or I’d better…’ So nothing is pressing, you’re just going along, you’re not doing what you should be doing because it’s holiday isn’t it. I’m not a shopper, except for food and that. I don’t spend money on myself. I don’t have it, I just don’t have it, but I do like to go on the bus or on the train. Not so much on the train because I can’t walk that well. I just miss people, but I’m very fortunate having my neighbours who are very kind and always there for me, so that’s good.'
Rose from Whitechapel, is a befriending advocate for the charity ‘Tower Hamlets Friend and Neighbour service’, working with older isolated people: 'I ring my mum a few times a day now where we would ring once a day before - she is 88 and has COPD. I had booked time off to get her out walking again, but then we went into lockdown. Our client group of older people are even more aware what it is like to be at home and the feeling of isolation. We continue to help them and support them during this time. I have friends who work in care homes and the NHS. I think of them every day and pray they stay safe and well.'
Rene (87), from Poplar, has wonderful memories of playing as a child at Limehouse Pier: 'You do miss seeing people, don’t you? And if you noticed, I’m lucky because my balcony looks out onto Canary Wharf, the road, people walk through. I am lucky but a few of the old girls I know they’re shut on about the 17th floor, no balcony, nothing - like being in a box and I think one of them, she does go out, she said ‘I’ve got to, I walk over to Asda… and I come back, at least I’ve had that break.’ So really, in one way, I am lucky what I’ve got, I have got an outlet, a lot of the elderly haven’t got that outlet. We lived through the war but at least we could go out and you took a chance, whether you come back or not.'