Fostering connection for isolated families

| April 11, 2020

While the threat of COVID-19 requires us to physically distance to reduce the spread of the disease, staying connected to minimise the impact on our social and psychological wellbeing is just as important.

We know from research, for example, that as many as one third of families with young children reported feeling isolated before the pandemic. How do we best support families with young children in our communities who were already feeling socially disconnected? Or reach out to those families likely to be feeling the effects of social isolation more acutely than others during the coronavirus pandemic?

The Dangers of Social Isolation

Social isolation, as a risk factor for mortality, is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A sense of belonging and connection is vital to a person’s health and wellbeing. Much focus has been given to the effects of social distancing and self-isolation on particular groups, such as older adults, those living alone, people with mental health concerns or living with a disability. This focus is warranted due to the vulnerability of these groups during this challenging time.

Yet, we know that for some families in our communities, the experience of parenting young children can be overwhelming and lonely. Strong social bonds have been shown to be protective in supporting positive outcomes for parents and children. A diminishing of social connection, the strain of physical distancing measures and the potential for prolonged self-isolation, is likely to push some families with young children towards a crisis point.

Already, there are reports of rising rates of family and domestic violence and increasing numbers of families with young children seeking emergency support ( due to income and job loss.

The importance of social connection as a public health issue has gained much traction within the political arena over recent years. In 2018, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced its first Loneliness Minister in response to a call for action from the Loneliness Commission, and last year Australian Labour MP, Andrew Giles addressed federal parliament on the need for policymakers to pay more attention to the consequences of social isolation and loneliness.

The Value of Community Support

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an important role to play for community-driven structured social relationship interventions, particularly for families with young children who are doing it tough, and who have little or no social support.

These interventions mobilise volunteer community members, linking them with families who are socially isolated or marginalised, bridging a critical service gap for families whose needs are too complex for universal services but below the threshold for specialist or intensive support. In other words, volunteers are a powerful community resource, getting in early to help families before their needs escalate.

Volunteer Family Connect offers an example of a successful support model being delivered in Australia by a long-standing consortium of highly experienced child and family service providers, including theBenevolent Society, Karitane and Save the Children.

Led by Western Sydney University, a recent Australian trial and social impact evaluation demonstrated the effectiveness of Volunteer Family Connect in improving outcomes for families who were experiencing isolation and adversity.

Trained volunteers provided families with emotional, practical and informational support. Participating parents showed significantly improved parenting confidence, optimism for the future and wellbeing. A return on investment analysis showed that, for vulnerable families, every $1 invested in this program represented a return of $5.42.

Structured social relationship interventions, like Volunteer Family Connect, typically provide one-on-one, face-to-face, home-based support. In the midst of COVID-19, the Volunteer Family Connect program has had to rethink their mode of service delivery to ensure that families are able to stay connected when they need it the most.

It has been essential to be responsive and flexible during these unprecedented times. Now that face-to-face meetings are no longer possible, families have remained socially connected with their community volunteers over the phone or through virtual ‘home visits’ using video conferencing and other online platforms.

The structured social relationship model underpinning Volunteer Family Connect offers a low-cost but high-impact solution for fostering a sense of connection for those most vulnerable to social isolation. This model can be extended, through co-design, to other vulnerable cohorts, such as older adults, refugees and new arrivals to the country, or people living with disability and chronic health conditions.

Investment is vital to achieving this broader and scalable application of the Volunteer Family Connect model – a tried and tested community-embedded approach to strengthening social connectedness.

This is a challenging time for families, with more and more families experiencing stress, social isolation and disconnection. This will continue, for many, well beyond the immediate health concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is critical that governments invest in cost-effective, sustainable and scalable interventions that we know work, and that promote social and community connection to support child and family health and wellbeing, now and post COVID-19.

This article was written by Dr Kelly Baird, a Research Fellow in the Translational Research and Social Innovation (TReSI) group in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University, and Associate Professor Rebekah Grace, the Director of the Centre for Transforming early Education and Child Health (TeEACH) at Western Sydney University. Rebekah’s research is focused on the service and support needs of children and families who experience adversity. She employs a cross-disciplinary, mixed-methods approach to research, and seeks to move beyond the bounds of disciplinary silos to address complex challenges.