Ground-breaking initiative aims to cut pandemic loneliness in older people

The loneliness suffered by the old and young alike during Covid lockdowns was painful and destructive. Particularly in care homes, it lasted a long time.

Now, Leeds University has decided to try a new form of help for lonely people that could bring comfort and companionship.

Researchers have found that a simple form of talking therapy mitigates loneliness in older people left isolated during the pandemic.

Each week people were contacted over the phone by trained support workers. They were encouraged to keep up their social contacts and to stick to a daily programme which included both routine and leisure activities.

This approach from the BASIL-C19 (Behavioural Activation in Social Isolation) study lasted for eight weeks. Importantly it was designed in collaboration with older people who had suffered social isolation, loneliness and depression during the pandemic.

The restrictions imposed by the pandemic has highlighted the importance of good mental health and maintaining social connections. Even before Covid there were 1.4 million older adults in England who were so lonely it affected their mental health.

Since the pandemic this has only got worse, especially where people have had to self-isolate.

In anticipation of the deterioration in mental health of older people during the pandemic, a team of researchers and clinicians decided to focus on the psychological impact of enforced isolation, disruption to daily routines, loss of social contact and loneliness.

The team included academics from the Universities of York, Leeds, Keele and Manchester, plus the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys Foundation NHS Trust, in collaboration with the charity Age UK.

They designed a brief intervention to combat depression and loneliness.

Older people who were enrolled welcomed the telephone contact and found the intervention helped in keeping up daily routines and social contacts.

Preliminary results showed mental health improved and loneliness was markedly reduced in the first three months of the study.

A much larger follow-up trial is currently recruiting at 12 sites across England and Wales, to include more than 600 older people as part of the largest study of its kind ever undertaken to tackle loneliness and depression.

If the outcome is similar to the preliminary results it looks as if we’ll have a very simple successful treatment to alleviate loneliness and isolation which could help whole communities.

The beauty of it is it could only have been achieved by the collaboration between many scientists, doctors, care workers, psychologists, researchers and several professors.

We need this valuable teamwork to tackle the universal problem of loneliness and isolation.