Isolation, Loneliness and the Value of Exercise in COVID-19 Times

Dr. Diarmuid O’Shea, President of the Irish Gerontological Society


“Lockdown” continuing for too long runs the risk of flattening the curve while at the same time resulting in poor outcomes in many other areas including isolation, loneliness and confinement, to mention but a few. 

On May 18th, there will be a further lifting of restrictions and we will continue to rebuild our collective confidence and work towards a “new normal”.   We are all aware of how important it is to get the pace and balance of the lifting of these restrictions right. The past 2 weeks have seen the gradual reintroduction to our society of those that were asked to “cocoon”.  Their welcome return to our society and the great outdoors will lift their and our spirits.  It also acts as a reminder to us all of how important it is to follow and adhere to the public health messages around social distancing as outlined by the HSE.

We must also remember that fear itself can behave like a virus, spreading if unchecked.  To combat fear we need facts, ongoing education and credible media reporting.  Responsible and accurate media reporting has played a very important part in the actions against COVID 19 over the last two months.  As with the frontline support and health care workers, the job is far from done.  We will all have a very important role to play in the months ahead.  Among other things, ongoing education, communication and the trustworthy experts lending their voices and knowledge to us all, will be as important in the next phase of our return to recovery and our “new normal” as it has been over the recent months.    

Fear itself can cause harm.  As a consequence fear can result in outcomes just as serious as if you had contracted an illness of any sort.  So how do we protect ourselves and society from the other unintended consequences, including poor physical and mental health, and wellbeing outcomes, in our fight against COVID-19?  We can start by being aware of the possibility of these issues and address them.  We should not let ourselves get caught up in fear-mongering.  Listen to the experts and to the facts from trusted and respected sources.     

Loneliness is now considered to be a critical public health issue

The TILDA report in 2019 is timely. 

Loneliness, social isolation, and their discordance among older adults  

It shows that the absence of strong social supports in the form of loneliness and social isolation is harmful to the wellbeing of older adults.  It also shows that poor self-rated health, functional limitations and chronic conditions, are associated with higher levels of loneliness.  There is a need to address both the subjective and objective features of loneliness in order to positively impact on the wellbeing of older adults.  Loneliness is now considered a critical public health issue.  Responses to increased concern about loneliness have included, and been spearheaded by, many voluntary and community-based organizations, including ALONE.  Indeed the responses of our communities, and the individuals in them, has been both heartening and inspiring. 

The value of getting an early grip on coronavirus in a country, is that it allows countries who do, to relax the isolation criteria for us all, including those “cocooning”.   Unless we have adequate testing we cannot get to grips with the COVID 19 challenge.  There is a concern that ongoing isolation for older and vulnerable adults, indeed anyone, will result in poor outcomes in many areas including mental health and wellbeing.  Hence the welcome relaxing of some of the restrictions on May 5th.  

In Switzerland, it is now legal again for children under 10 to give their grandparents a hug.  Just read that line again! But that is where we are now.  They feel that young children may not pose a risk to high-risk people.  But like everything else, we are not sure yet, so we must watch and monitor as the evidence emerges on how contagious this new disease is.  The truth is we really don’t know, and we are all learning together on this. 

There is also a growing acknowledgement and body of evidence of the importance of physical exercise, physical contact, and physical affection on mental health and wellbeing.  These are hugely challenged when we are told that social distancing is one of the key determinants in reducing the transmission of COVID 19.

Find out what works for you

We know too, that exercise and movement are very important in helping us all to experience a better and healthier ageing trajectory.  The recent report from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland 2020 highlights the benefits of physical activity in older adults.  It reminds us that being active improves mood, wellbeing and reduces stress and anxiety.  Keeping active is challenging and we can all come up with excuses to avoid taking exercise.  But knowing that it can improve more than just how you feel, should be a great motivator.  150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, results in a reduced risk of early death, breast and prostate cancer, and also helps improve your memory and reduces your risk of falls.  So, find out what works for you and “Get Up, Get Dressed and Get Moving”!.  There are 1440 minutes in a day and 10080 minutes in a week.  150 minutes is 1.5% of the week.  So you can take it easy for most of the other 98.5% of the week if you wish!   As we lift the restrictions over the next few weeks and months, consider giving some of your time over to intentional and structured exercise.  Find what works for you.

We, along with older people, have the right to choose how we go about our daily routine while adhering to the public health guidance and advice.  But we should all be able to find the time (1.5% of the week!)  to fit in some regular and appropriate exercise to our new routines. 

Phase 1 of the exit strategy starts on May 18th.  We get a look over the next few weeks at what our “new normal” world will begin to look like.  Fittingly, those in the “at-risk and vulnerable groups” are leading the way in ‘baby steps’ back to our new normal.  Please give them all the respect they have earned, the distance they need, and the support, encouragement and gratitude that they deserve.  We will all learn with them as we move into our new normal world.

What will bring us through this pandemic is “All for one and one for all”.