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As part of the ongoing fight against coronavirus, the NHS is identifying and contacting 1.5 million people who are classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’. This means they are at high risk of becoming seriously ill if they come into contact with the coronavirus.
In addition to these ‘extremely vulnerable’ individuals, other groups of individuals (i.e. over 70s) are being told to strictly observe the social distancing guidance for the next 12 weeks. This process is known as shielding, and is intended to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.
Though a necessary step to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable in our society, prolonged isolation is a significant risk factor for loneliness. Loneliness and social isolation are strongly associated with mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, especially amongst older people.
Healthcare professionals (HCPs) are likely to be in contact with vulnerable people who are being shielded from coronavirus. It’s natural for many of these individuals to feel worried, anxious or down. However, the good news is that HCPs are well-placed to provide guidance and support for combating loneliness.
The modern world offers an abundance of remote ways to stay connected with friends, family and neighbours. Encourage your patients to make frequent use of telephone calls as well as video chat services such as Whatsapp, Facetime and Skype.
Many people are using this time to reconnect with people who they’ve lost touch with. Others are forming new friendships through social media and local telephone befriending schemes. For those who are set up on a computer or iPad, interacting with posts on Facebook, joining and participating in online communities about topics they are interested in, or joining peer support groups is a great way to do this.
Silverline and Age UK work together to offer a telephone befriending service. People aged 60 and over can receive a regular weekly telephone call from a friendly and supportive volunteer.
Many local communities have set up volunteering groups (on social media and via local councils) who are looking out for vulnerable members of society. They can help with delivering food and prescriptions as well as offering a friendly ear for a telephone chat.
Advise your patients to try and establish a routine which incorporates regular wake up and sleep times, consistent mealtime patterns, and daily relaxation and leisure activities (which can be carried out at home).
Encourage patients to invest time in hobbies – either existing ones or those that they’ve always wanted to try. This could be anything from doing arts and crafts to baking, to joining a virtual choir or learning a new language.
Many people have books sitting on their shelves that they’ve never had time to read, TV series they’ve not had the chance to watch, and household jobs that have been put off for a long time. Now is the time to invest time in these things.
Recent evidence from China relating to COVID-19 has suggested that people who had up-to-date information regarding the status of the outbreak and guidance regarding health demonstrated lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. If it’s helpful to individuals who are self-isolating, they may wish to stay updated with the situation and remain informed on the latest governmental advice.
However, many people find that constant exposure to negative news can make them feel stressed or anxious. Here are some tips for staying informed whist also limiting the amount of news exposure:
The NHS GoodSAM Volunteer Responder scheme has been set up to connect healthy members of the public with vulnerable people. The scheme encourages volunteers to ‘Check-in and Chat’ by providing short-term telephone befriending support to isolated people at risk of loneliness. It also offers support with food deliveries and prescription collections.
Many local councils have set up emergency volunteer schemes with similar measures, and several communities throughout the country have done the same at neighbourhood level. Encourage patients to make use of these services – either as a service user or as a volunteer. People in high risk categories are still permitted to sign up and provide support via telephone.
Ensure any vulnerable person who may need additional support during this time is registered with the government. This can be done by the person themselves or by someone else on their behalf.
It’s also worth reaching out to local food businesses and food shops, as many are offering heavily subsidised (or free) food delivery services to the homes of vulnerable people.
Encourage your patients to use the TV or radio as a substitute for companionship if they’re feeling lonely. As an alternative to reading, they might like to listen to an audiobook. Similarly, the radio is useful for some general chit chat and human interaction.
Some evidence suggests that background distractions such as watching television helps to increase energy (calorie) intake. This could be useful amongst older or vulnerable people who are at increased risk of malnutrition.
Some families are lending their pets to older or vulnerable relatives who live alone to provide them with a safe physical companion. If this isn’t practical, you could suggest that your patients and loved ones video call friends and family with pets.