Still Alone Together builds on and updates the findings of the first report and utilises new data to provide a fuller picture of New Zealand’s levels of loneliness.
Across the whole population, self-reported loneliness increased immediately after the nationwide lockdown, and increased further later in the year, perhaps due to reduced 'checking in' on vulnerable people.
By the end of 2020, loneliness levels had largely reverted to pre-pandemic levels, Stats NZ data reveals.
Groups already at risk were severely affected and remained so by the end of the year. These include the unemployed, low-income earners, single parents, young people, recent migrants, Māori and disabled people.
By the end of the year, 10% of disabled people reported feeling lonely most or all of the time, four times as many as the non-disabled population.
"Systemic issues such inaccessible buildings, inadequate housing and high unemployment can make it difficult for disabled people to connect with others,” Chief Executive of the Disabled Persons Assembly New Zealand (DPA) Prudence Walker said.
"We may not have colleagues, we are not able to easily socialise at the places other people do, and we may not be able to afford to participate on an equal basis. There are so many things we need to have in place to connect with other people that it can be exhausting. It’s no wonder people feel lonely.”
Report author and WSP Fellow Holly Walker says the impact of the pandemic appears to have compounded these experiences. “The high rates of loneliness among disabled people are stark and alarming,” she said.
David Kidd, WSP Director Client Experience and Strategic Advisory, said the research highlights the need for urban spaces to enable all abilities to participate and flourish.
"Given the changing needs of society it’s essential that we design cities and towns that meet the needs of all residents. It’s fair to say that everyone who plays a role in shaping the built environment needs to step up and put the most vulnerable and isolated at the heart of decision-making.”
The report says short periods of loneliness are normal but when experienced consistently and for a prolonged period, it can have profound negative consequences for health and wellbeing.
Humans evolved to rely on each other for survival, and spending weeks, months, or years stressed due to loneliness can create hormonal imbalances, disrupt sleep, elevate feelings of panic and anxiety, weaken our immune system, heighten the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, depression and dementia, the report notes.
Alone Together made the case for loneliness to be taken more seriously as a public policy issue, and made 12 recommendations to the Government.
"We are pleased to note that there has been significant progress in some areas,” Walker said.
"However, in others there has been little to no progress. Particularly in closing the digital divide, improving public transport, and in more getting the new frontline mental health service off the ground.
"Loneliness remains a significant public policy challenge because its myriad negative health and wellbeing impacts are disproportionately affecting those who were already most negatively impacted by Covid-19.
"A particular focus on the social wellbeing of disabled people, unemployed people, people on low incomes, sole parents, and young people is required.”