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Enabling social contacts during Covid-19

It has been now seven months that Covid-19 not only entered Europe but also forced much of the elderly and vulnerable population indoors. Whilst initially the expectation was that this would be short lived, the status has now lived on for quite a while. To make matters worse, with the emergence of the 2nd wave (or alternatively called cold season expectable steady state) the elderly population will have to sequester or 'shield' inside for most likely another 6 months, away from society and pretty much anything and anyone they know. We know that lack of human contact and interaction can cause cognitive and intellectual skills to deteriorate, and may be especially damaging for people with mild or moderate dementia. When the weather was good over the summer, it was possible for residents of care homes with access to some green space to interact outdoors without too much risk. As we come to the end of October, this will be a much less inviting prospect even for those accustomed to British winters. 

For social contacts, in many cases it is a Mark 4:25 situation, whoever has, shall be given more...  If you still have family and some friends or other social contacts, chances are that some contact was made during the first lockdown period. But with care homes and social services struggling to implement basic protective measures, the Campaign to end Loneliness statistic of 1 million elderly without regular friendly contact is looking increasingly like an outdated underestimate. As most organizations are more occupied with managing the crisis rather than documenting the situation with good data, it will also be interesting to see how severe this problem was in hindsight.

The effect of shielding on the maintenance of friendships in age is doubly sad, as the benefits of friendship among older people are in many ways easier to secure than for those who are young. What seems to matter for old age friendship is enabling participation, in small circles, communities and civil society groups. Being still acknowledged and appreciated as a part of society, knowing that someone cares for the person still being around, playing some card games, having a nice chat over tea and seeing a friendly face; for most elderly people that is already a good start to the week. But with shielding - which severely curtails the opportunities for normal social engagement and companion - it becomes a serious challenge to secure these relatively ordinary goods.  And although some elderly people embrace technology, most technology development is geared towards a younger demographic, with small screens and on-screen small buttons. A classical Plug and Play device, with a video calling software could help, with setup similar to a TV. Suitable suggestions are on the web (e.g., but they still require someone who is tech-savvy to set it up for proper use.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that it is not easy for Volunteer Befriending services in Britain - the larger organizations anyway - to operate at scale, constrained as they are by the extra administration required not just to safeguard their clients but to demonstrate and document how it is being done. From discussions with one befriending services program administrator, small scale local organizations are better adapted to volunteer ‘matchmaking’ because local leaders can essentially vouch for their volunteers as a result of direct personal acquaintance (such as in local village communities, church communities and interest groups).

In other words, the methods of contact facilitation that can be most readily scaled up are those that enhance casual links that already exist, such as within care homes, clubs etc, where no vouching or organizational documentation is required, but links can be established by people centrally in the organization. With good people skills (and anecdotal memory capacity), they can make suggestions such as 'the person you were serving with on the welcome desk also likes butterfly collecting, why don't you give her a shout in the coming days'. Digital tools for supporting this are in development, but given the need for a basic acquaintance with communication technology, which comes from contact with someone who has know-how, it is again part of the same chicken and egg problem described above. These technological solutions also suffer from what we might call ‘network initiation problems’, i.e. that only once a critical mass of people is on board, does the likelihood of sufficiently high quality matches for an initial 'click' reach critical levels.

Finally while shielding is undoubtedly important for the most vulnerable older people, it is useful to think about strategic bubble creation. Thus at present it is difficult to imagine a practical alternative to keeping elderly grandparents away from their grandchildren once schools and universities are in full swing.  For example, citizen volunteer buses/taxis or neighbourhood programs that bring elderly people together into small groups (even when they are individually self-isolating) could provide some relief in the long dark evenings that the coming months will bring.

Finally we should remember that there are ways and means of helping people who lack physical mobility (health) get from A to B.  It requires resources, of course, the money to pay for a taxi ride or an organisation who has access either to vehicles or locations (assets that cost money) or volunteers (who give time).  And these kinds of resources - local civil institutions such as churches, care homes or working mens’ clubs - are not evenly distributed across different regions (e.g. Northern England v. London) or indeed different countries. As hundreds of charities are scrambling for resources, all for equally valid and pressing causes, it will be interesting to see to whether this issue will receive adequate attention in the coming six months or whether the increase in solitude of thousands of elderly will yet be more collateral damage from the pandemic. 

About the Author:

Christian Langkamp is Visiting Academic at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, researching friendship maintenance habits in midlife and third age.

Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

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