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#CopingWithCovid19: The ups and downs of self-isolating and social distancing

Just a few weeks ago, a life of social distancing and self-isolation was unimaginable. Covid19 has flipped our lives on its head. How are we coping?

Coronavirus in Bristol

“Normally, I would go out in different places. I’d be leaving here about 9 o’clock. I’d go down to meet Mary and John, two of my neighbours who live down the street, we’d go to the cafe and have breakfast. I’d just have beans on toast or something. And we’d stay there until about 9:45 chattering… Every Monday I would go to the drop-in centre for people with learning difficulties [where] I volunteer. I stay there until about 4 o’clock, you see. I would have a good laugh with them.”

“I sit here drinking tea, drinking coffee, just wondering what I should do next.”

This is a typical Monday for Martin*, a pensioner living in Supported Housing for Older People (SHOP) in South Bristol. He’s been self-isolating since 15 March. He is diabetic and has heart and lung issues and is especially vulnerable. Self-isolation has taken a toll on him. Now, he says: “I sit here drinking tea, drinking coffee, just wondering what I should do next.”

Lockdown is in full force now with all parts of social and work life put on hold and people ordered to retreat to their homes for the foreseeable future. It’s been hard on us all. But for those forced to shield and self-isolate it’s especially difficult. For many, it’s the source of much anxiety, fear, loneliness and uncertainty.

Impact and change

Martin lives alone but is a very sociable and active person: “I get my stimulus from other people”, self-isolation took something valuable away from him. He says: “The most difficult thing so far is motivation. I mean… I’m a tidy person… [but now] I don’t want to go into the kitchen because I’ve got a mountain of washing-up to do. It’s just motivation”.

“I’m fine now”, he says, “but might be climbing the walls in two or three weeks”.

He also worries about the people he used to volunteer with at the drop-in centre: “I miss it. If anything, I worry about them, do you know what I mean? Because none of them are meeting now, they’ve abandoned it.”

Now that he’s self-isolating, he’s worried about lack of support. “Everyone over here is over 60, 65. None of them will go for your shopping. And the wardens have disappeared. They’re not coming. They’re going to telephone us now to check we’re alright.” He asks “Where’s the support in supported housing?”

Martin tells me about his morning: “I went out this morning just to get some milk… I haven’t had a cup of tea for two days… I bought myself 4 pints of milk.” With joy, he says: “…and you wouldn’t believe, I bought myself two big pots of ice cream.”

He grins and adds: “If all else fails, I’ll have some bloody ice cream.”

Adjusting and socialising

I ring Ruth, a retired academic in neurolinguistics. She’s the sole carer for her husband, Ken, who has advanced COPD, a chronic lung disease. They just received a text from the NHS urging Ken that he – along with 1.5m most at risk people in the UK – shield and stay at home for 12 weeks. As his sole carer, Ruth is concerned. “If I go down, then Ken will be in a really bad way. So, I have to be incredibly careful… I’m shielding myself as well.”

Ruth and Ken live in a flat with no stairs, fitted with a hospital bed. Ken’s oxygen equipment was put in place long before the pandemic, she says. The past couple of months have prepared them for self-isolation and now the shielding period.

When Ken contracted a bad infection before Christmas, they both began self-isolating as a preventative measure. “He really couldn’t risk getting another one… We would see close family, but the grandkids didn’t come close to us,” she tells me. His health got better, she adds, and “he was able to regain much of his strength”.

Before the coronavirus news broke, they got a carer to start coming. “Just once a week or so to take him out for walks… perhaps to do shopping. And this turned out to be really good, good for both of us.” This has been put on hold, she tells me, to stop the risk to the carer and to themselves.

Ruth and Ken were not used to living in social isolation though. “We’re used to having people pop in, neighbours from the building, neighbours from outside the building”. It was odd at first, but they quickly got used to it.

To contact family and friends, “[w]e use the phone a lot”, she says. [B]ut I’ve finally been persuaded by my granddaughter to use WhatsApp, which I’ve been resisting like mad. She set up a family group, so we’ve been joshing about on that.”

“Calling it social distancing is a bit strange”, AJ* says, a freelance artist in Central Bristol. She prefers “physical distancing” as self-isolation hasn’t prevented her from socialising with her friends. She’s been self-isolating for seven days after falling ill with a fever on 13 March. She wasn’t tested but she self-isolated as a precaution for herself and her family. During this time, while life isn’t the same, she’s been enjoying Netflix parties with friends and staying digitally connected with them.

Enjoying the Ride

Like many self-isolating, shielding and social distancing, Ruth has been wondering about what she can do with all the free time. “It’s been quite fun actually because somebody asked me to write a book chapter,” which she looks forward to. She enjoys crocheting: “That was quite good today because the power went off.” She’s making a blanket.

AJ just finished making a mask: “It’s like a T-shirt mask and it has a pocket at the front where you put a kitchen towel in, that you change out. Whether it will work or not who knows…[I’m] just finding fun crafts.” Beside crafting, baking and seeing friends – albeit virtually – she’s been trying to rest. If we look at the stressful time we live in, AJ reminds, “it’s ok to just chill”.

Last time I spoke to Martin he told me he’s going to try Sudoku to pass time. I ask him about it, and laughingly he replies: “I threw the book across the room. It frustrated me. I can’t even get nine squares.” We laugh. He adds: “I’m gonna write a little story I think. I used to write years ago. I’ve got an idea so I’m gonna write [a] little story… That will give me something to do.”

As of 30 March, Bristol City Council is yet to respond to The Cable’s request for a comment on lack of support and absence of wardens at Martin’s SHOP residency complex.

There isn’t one uniform experience or coping mechanism for social distancing and self-isolation. It’s different for everyone. So, I want to hear from you: how are you coping with Covid19? What has changed for you? What are you doing to keep spirits up? What have been the challenges? Get in touch:

*Names changed to protect identities.

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