Will the pandemic enable us to empathise more with those who, in ordinary times, are isolated?

Anna Cox & Ann Gallagher

Many have offered opinions on what can be learned during this pandemic. This is an extraordinary time with lockdown and enforced isolation. Whereas many people are fortunate to be ‘isolated’ with loved ones, many others will be alone. We suggest that the pandemic is offering a global opportunity to better understand the isolation experienced by many older people in ordinary times.

One of the ethics education strategies we’ve researched is ‘immersive simulation’. This involves care-givers assuming the role of care-recipients and experiencing the vulnerability and dependence that older adults regularly experience in care contexts. Following 24 hours of this immersive simulation experience, caregivers described ‘epiphanous insights’ relating to the practice of care (Gallagher et al., 2017).  The experience of walking in someone else’s shoes can, we learnt, touch hearts and minds.  In the frantic pace of normal life, we struggle to find time and space to imagine the impact of social isolation. Covid-19 may be offering us the opportunity to cultivate empathy for those who feel socially disconnected.

The terms ‘social distancing’ and ‘social isolation’ have become part of our everyday vocabulary.  Millions of people, both young and old, are following guidance to ‘stay at home’. For most of us this social isolation is a new experience, however before Covid-19, loneliness was acknowledged to be the greatest public health challenge of our time (HM Govenment, 2018). Prior to this pandemic, the government and the media told the public that 200,000 older people hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or relative in the past month (GOV UK, 2018) and 60% of residents in care homes for older people never receive a single visitor (Channel 4, 2016) but did this touch our hearts and minds? Do we understand these findings differently now we have experienced social isolation for ourselves? 

Our research suggests that reflecting on and recording the epiphanies we experience during simulation has the potential to sustain ethical practices. While we are isolating in our own homes, missing the social connections that we took for granted just a few weeks ago, perhaps we should write and reflect on how isolation feels? Perhaps we can each better contribute to a more socially connected society and better ‘ordinary’ times where fewer older people will experience loneliness ?

Channel 4. (2016). Channel 4 commissions Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. Retrieved from https://www.channel4.com/press/news/channel-4-commissions-old-peoples-home-4-year-olds

Gallagher, A., Peacock, M., Zasada, M., Coucke, T., Cox, A., & Janssens, N. (2017). Care-givers’ reflections on an ethics education immersive simulation care experience: A series of epiphanous events. Nurs Inq, 24(3). doi:10.1111/nin.12174

GOV UK. (2018). PM launches Government’s first loneliness strategy Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-launches-governments-first-loneliness-strategy

HM Govenment. (2018). A connected society A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-connected-society-a-strategy-for-tackling-loneliness