UBC Vancouver: Virtual contact in pandemic prompts over 60s’ loneliness

Older adults who had more virtual contact than their peers during the pandemic actually experienced increased loneliness, according to new research published today.

The study, published in ‘Frontiers in Sociology’, found virtual interaction—including things like phone calls, texting, online audio and video chat— was not helpful on its own as an alternative to face-to-face time for people over 60.

The pandemic severely curtailed face-to-face contact between households, particularly for older adults, due to their high risk of developing severe illness if infected by COVID-19.

“This study is among the first to comparatively assess the association between social interactions across households and mental well-being in the COVID-19 pandemic,” says UBC sociologist Dr. Yue Qian, a co-author of the study.

“Our findings show that despite rapid digitisation in the U.K. and elsewhere, virtual means of social interaction cannot replace in-person contact in supporting older people’s mental health,” says first author Dr. Yang Hu of Lancaster University.

“This has to do with a complex set of factors, such as digital access, device affordance, tech know-how and potential digital stress among the aging population.”

The study noted, virtual contact, on top of face-to-face contact, helped bolster mental wellbeing.

The researchers analysed results from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society COVID-19 Survey and the USA Health and Retirement Survey.

The data was collected from 5,148 older people—aged 60 or over—in the U.K. and 1,391 in the U.S. who were surveyed both before (2018–2019) and during (June 2020) the pandemic.

It showed a notable increase in loneliness in the U.S. and a decline in general mental well-being in the U.K. following the outbreak of COVID-19.

This research examined how different forms of interactions between family and friends living in different households related to older adults’ mental well-being during the pandemic.

In both countries, virtual interactions through telephone and digital media, were not associated with general mental well-being. In contrast, older people who admitted to having socialised more frequently in-person with families and friends between households during the pandemic fared better.

It found:

Face-to-face contact between family and friends living in different households was important for mental well-being in both the U.K. and the U.S.
Although digital communication has increased considerably during the pandemic, virtual contact was not a ‘qualitatively equivalent alternative’ for in-person contact.
Virtual contact, when used on top of face-to-face contact, helped bolster mental wellbeing.
Patterns were very similar in both the U.K. and the U.S., despite the different contexts and pandemic responses.
These findings provide an important evidence base for informing policy developments and for supporting the mental health of older people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study suggests that public health policymakers and practitioners should address the looming mental health crisis cascading from the pandemic into this age group. The findings also outline the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally-enhanced future in supporting an aging population longer term.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental well-being,” says Dr. Qian. “Beyond the context of the pandemic, the findings also indicate the need to enable strong inter-household ties to bolster public mental health in the long run.”

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