Social connection at a time of physical isolation

Monday 6th April 2020
How ARCO's members are being creative about connection

Last week ARCO submitted evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Integration, for their inquiry into social connection during the Covid-19 outbreak. Physical distancing during this period is vital – but it also brings challenges for reducing social isolation.

Here we take a look at some of the key points from our submission, drawing on the great work of our members to keep their residents connected in this disconnecting time. 

Retirement Communities as centres of connection

In normal times, Retirement Communities are places where strong face-to-face connections are formed between residents and with the wider community. Rather than being detached ‘grey ghettos’, they are often located on or next to the High Street, and bring different generations together through shared spaces and activities. Residents are five times as likely to participate in social events upon moving in, and four times as likely to meet up with friends. Only 1% say they often feel isolated.

Take St Monica Trust’s The Chocolate Quarter in Keynsham as one example of a Retirement Community acting as a centre of connection. Its bar, cafes and leisure facilities provide a hub for the town, and the site brings together 136 supported housing units, a 93-bed care home, office space, a swimming pool, pottery, dance studio, cinema, restaurant and bar – all accessible to local people and designed to appeal to all ages.

The challenges of physical isolation

Given the critical need to reduce social contacts to a minimum during the Covid-19 outbreak, Retirement Communities have had to restrict the use of communal facilities which usually provide spaces for social connection. These include restaurants, cafes and gyms usually open to the public. Outdoor spaces can remain open so long as residents remain distanced from one another.

This presents obvious challenges for maintaining a sense of social connection. With older people particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, it is vital to protect their health through isolation. But with older people also one of the groups most at risk of loneliness, it is equally vital to think creatively about how to foster feelings of connection during this difficult time.

A broader challenge for Retirement Communities in tackling social isolation is the simple lack of provision in today’s UK. Compared to countries like New Zealand, Australia and the US where at least 5% of over-65s live in a Retirement Community, only 0.6% do so here.

Being creative about connection

ARCO’s members have joined others across the country in responding brilliantly to the challenge presented by the Covid-19 outbreak. Anchor Hanover, a founding member, pioneered a #BeKindToOneAnother initiative, inviting people to send letters, pictures, videos and poems to their local care home residents. Within days people of all ages had shared messages of hope and positivity – including Year 5 pupils at Park Junior School in Northampton, who broadcast their uplifting messages on BBC radio to residents at the local Bilton Court care home.

Numerous members have used technology effectively to build connections. The Extra Care Charitable Trust and Inspired Villages have both created virtual villages online where residents, staff, volunteers, friends, family and loved ones can come to socialise, as well as get health advice and activity ideas. ExtraLife Online and the Virtual Village Centre can both be found on Facebook.

As well as practical initiatives, our members have played a key role in sharing best practice and raising awareness about the importance of social connection. St Monica Trust organised the first ever ‘National Intergenerational Week’, sharing creative methods to build intergenerational bonds while staying physically separated, and making a section on their website to draw attention to successful intergenerational projects across society, from shared activities and events to housing schemes.

Lessons for the future

The creative tools for building social connection being deployed during the Covid-19 crisis will undoubtedly produce lessons for the remainder of the outbreak, but also for the future. We hope to see the reforms and policy focus enabling a growing number of Retirement Communities to operate across the UK, helping older people to stay connected and reducing loneliness.

Debates about the degree to which technology can help build meaningful connections, and ways it can be designed for all ages, will surely gain new impetus as a result of Covid-19. And with different generations sharing messages, stories and experiences through so many mediums, the hope is that younger and older people come to appreciate one another much more.

While our members look forward to the time when their shared spaces and facilities can bring people together for face-to-face contact again, the current moment demands creativity about connection. It has been great to see our members putting this into action.