Under normal circumstances, people who suffer from loneliness in social isolation may have access to programs like Happy Paws Happy Hearts or community groups. With the current physical distancing requirements how can people who were already having difficulty with social isolation be supported?
Happy Paws Happy Hearts CEO & Co-founder, Zoe Black said, “When people are socially isolated they need a really strong motivator to get them out two times a week.”
The HPHH program was developed to connect vulnerable members of society with shelter animals for mutual therapy with the aim of giving socially isolated people connection to a group but also a sense of purpose and re-engaging in the act of contributing. People with disability, Veterans and the elderly have all benefited from the HPHH NDIS registered program.
During this time of required physical distancing, HPHH have rapidly deployed video lessons and tutorials so their program participants can continue engaging in their program from home. They have also set up livestream sessions so their community can connect and ask questions of the Trainers. Zoe Black said, ” It’s been really well received and those participants with pets at home are testing out their lessons and training with the whole family.”
Adderton asked Zoe Black what impact did HPHH think COVID-19 would have on people who are socially isolated in normal circumstances?
“In the short term, we were obviously concerned about mental and physical wellbeing because many aren’t even engaging in the shopping outings etc. that the rest of us are doing. Longer term though, we think it’s an important time for the wider society to gain an insight into what isolation can feel like for the people we normally see.
I think many of us are grateful that we have friends and family we can video call during this time but imagine you didn’t have this access to technology or social networks? Imagine that even a small outing to the shops was anxiety inducing to the point of being unable to engage? The world becomes very dark very quickly and this is our everyday world for many of our participants.” Zoe Black said.
Take a look at the heart-warming video exploring the work of Happy Paws Happy Hearts and Artist, Donna Marcus’ striking artwork for A Fierce Hope that evokes the feeling of connection, positivity and happy memories that program participants experience.
How can we help?
If you know someone with a disability and/or traumatic background who is feeling isolated at home without their usual social connections, Zoe Black of HPHH said, “Please tell them to get in touch with us at HPHH on 1300 077 984 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the HPHH website to enquire about a program. We find lots of people have an interest in animals even if they don’t have their own pets. Our weekly lessons online are really engaging and they will learn fantastic new skills.”
UQ Associate Professor of Psychology, Genevieve Dingle said, “ …loneliness is widespread and affects all ages and walks of life. There is some indication that single people, particularly single parents, and also people who are unemployed and low income, are especially prone to feeling lonely.”
The groups in society whose social isolation may cause loneliness during this time include; those who were already socially isolated due to their mental, physical or financial circumstances, and anyone having to effectively quarantine e.g. people over 65 or over 50 if they’re of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
One way we can provide support to these people is through the Queensland Care Army a volunteer database that is an initiative of the Queensland Government, by phoning the Community Recovery Hotline (1800 173 349) or by simply reaching out to people in your circle who may be having difficulty; family, friends, neighbours and check in on them and ensure they have access to food, medical services and are not feeling isolated. Zoe Black of HPHH said support services like the Queensland Care Army are needed at all times, not just during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. In normal circumstances, pre-COVID-19, who were the socially isolated in our community?
The first thing to keep in mind is that social isolation and loneliness are different things. Social isolation is objective (i.e. not having contact with many people) whereas loneliness is subjective (i.e. having less quality social connection than you want). It is possible for people to be quite happy in isolation, and conversely it is possible for people to feel lonely even when they are surrounded by other people.
According to major reports that have been published in Australia, the UK and the USA in the past couple of years, loneliness is widespread and affects all ages and walks of life. There is some indication that single people, particularly single parents, and also people who are unemployed and low income, are especially prone to feeling lonely.
2. Why were they socially isolated?
People may feel lonely when they don’t have the financial and practical ability to go out and join groups and communities (so this would explain why single parents, and those on low incomes might be more lonely than others in the community). It also seems to occur at transition points in our lives, such as starting school, changing schools, moving to another location, relationship breakup, becoming a parent, changing jobs, retirement and so on. This suggests that it takes time to develop new social groups and networks and to maintain existing ties when you are not in face to face contact any more.
3. How can we help people who are socially isolated in normal circumstances who may suffer further during this time of enforced social distancing?
My colleagues and I at the University of Queensland are working on two solutions to loneliness. One is called ‘social prescribing’ – which is a system in which GPs and other service providers refer clients who are experiencing loneliness to a link worker who gets to know them and their interests and needs. Together, the client and the link worker develop a plan for the client to join a community based social activity. The link worker keeps detailed knowledge of the group programs in the local area, and who runs them, so they can help the patient to engage with a suitable group. If it’s not a good fit, the link worker and client discuss further and decide on another option.
The social prescribing system I’m evaluating is being led by the Mt Gravatt Community Centre, and it is called Ways to Wellness. Unfortunately, this project is not taking any new referrals at the present since there are no face to face groups running due to distancing guidelines. However, we expect that demand will be strong once the restrictions are lifted and people realise how important their social connections are!
The other approach we are working on – led by Professor Cath Haslam – is a group program called “Groups 4 Health”. It is a 5 session program that gives participants the knowledge and skills to manage their own social group memberships and overcome barriers to joining with others. We will be offering Groups 4 Health as part of the Ways to Wellness project, as soon as restrictions lift.
4. What resources might be available to vulnerable people who suffer when socially isolated?
My advice would be to look for hubs in your local area. There are often activities running out of the Brisbane City Council libraries, parks and recreational areas, Churches, Mosques and other Faith communities, RSL, bowls clubs, neighbourhood and community centres, community facebook and other social media pages. Find something you are interested in and be brave – make contact and find out more about it. If you have the time and energy, volunteer to help others – see https://volunteeringqld.org.au/ or talk to a charity in your local area.
5. What are the good things you are seeing around the world as people adapt and overcome physical distancing to connect with people?
The most immediate thing is that people are picking up the phone and going online to chat to their friends and families, and it has led to a greater sense of closeness in some cases as we now see each other in our home context, along with kids and pets and messy hair!
A topic I’ve been researching over the past decade is how arts based groups (such as choir singing) are related to participants’ health and wellbeing. One of the issues in this field is that people have many perceived barriers to participating in arts groups – such as “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have time to attend regular sessions / practice” and so on.
I’ve been impressed to see people overcome these perceived barriers in the current pandemic and start singing with their neighbours over the balconies, singing in online virtual choirs, learn steps to a dance online, live streaming of music concerts, email poetry exchanges, online art challenges, virtual tours of art gallery exhibitions, and a range of other arts activities. I really hope that when distancing restrictions are lifted we can keep some of the wonderful initiatives that have developed during this time.
Associate Professor Genevieve Dingle
Associate Professor Genevieve Dingle is a registered clinical psychologist and academic at the School of Psychology, University of Queensland. Her research examines how belonging to groups and communities can influence mental health and wellbeing. This includes both therapy groups (such as group cognitive behaviour therapy and therapeutic communities for alcohol and other drug treatment), as well as arts-based groups such as choirs. Her recent work focuses on loneliness, and how social prescribing to community groups may help to address this public health issue. She is a co-author of the 2018 book The New Psychology of Health – Unlocking the Social Cure, and lead author of the Groups 4 Belonging program, which addresses loneliness and the development of health promoting social groups among adults in addiction recovery.