When we think about our wellbeing, we think of avoiding major diseases, being financially comfortable, enjoying our daily lives and achieving our goals. Often we never stop to consider those invisible yet vital qualities of support, understanding and love that are provided by the people we keep close to us.
You cannot measure the contribution those individuals make to our lives, but without them the impact can be the greatest unseen risk to our long-term health and happiness. Isolation is no respecter of age or status, nor does it come without side-effects. Changes in our lives, or even just the passage of time, can result in losing that feeling of being needed, wanted and valued, and if you develop a physical or mental health problem, mobility issues or a fear of social interaction, isolation can set in even faster.
In a society that offers more than it has ever offered its citizens, it is a shame on us all that so many people feel cut off from their communities and networks, frequently as a result of becoming very vulnerable through no fault of their own. Neighbours, colleagues and even family and friends can abandon someone who is labelled as having problems that are too difficult to understand or support, just because it’s easier to ignore them than to become involved.
We turn the other cheek and expect someone else to help. Often, however, there is no one else. Many family carers are left to look after their loved one in isolation, without even a shoulder to cry on. For single people of all ages with health conditions that confine them to their homes, paid carers may be the only people that they see in a day, week, month or even a year. Yet those carers may not always arrive, and when they do they are unlikely to have time to chat.
If you are living with a condition like dementia, the stigma alone can see you shunned by those who you thought you could rely on, at the very time when being isolated is likely to make your symptoms worse and your future very bleak. For many people who are isolated, depression and lack of self-worth can see them give up on the basic elements required to get through each day. Without quality of life, purpose and passion, it is easy to see why people who are isolated can lose the will to live, and in the case of many older people with numerous health problems, that is exactly what does happen.
I found it incredibly sad to learn that some residents in one of my dad’s care homes had a social worker or solicitor as their next of kin. So basically not a soul in the world who would want to be notified if they fell ill in the night, or would come to hold their hand and comfort them. Just someone to be notified when they had died so that their affairs could be finalised. Yet at least these people were within the warm and supportive environment of a care home where they were loved by staff, residents and visitors. Imagine the isolation for someone in those circumstances living alone.
These days of course we don’t need to leave our homes to feel solidarity and support in our lives – access to social media can bring friendship and understanding, regardless of how difficult your circumstances are. Like most methods of combatting isolation, however, people need to seek it for themselves, and often those who are the most seriously isolated don’t have the means or the ability to do that.
Isolation is something that can creep up on you very easily, and yet it is incredibly difficult – and in some cases impossible – to escape from. Us humans are wonderful at segregating our fellow citizens, putting them into a particular demographic and leaving them there. Yet extending a welcome, showing an interest in someone’s life and being kind cost nothing except our time. After all, one day we might just need that ourselves.