Elderly people aged above 60 years living in the UK and the US who had more virtual contact during the pandemic actually experienced a greater increase in loneliness, finds a new research study.  Staying in touch with friends and family via technology made many of them feel lonelier and depressed than no contact at all, researchers said.

The study, led by researchers from the UK's Lancaster University, showed that many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own. 

"We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all," said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University. "We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn't seem to have been the case for older people," he added.

Moscow, July 4, 2020 (Xinhua) -- An elderly couple relax on a bench at a park in Moscow, Russia, on July 4, 2020. Russia added 6,632 new COVID-19 cases, raising its total number of infections to 674,515, its coronavirus response center said in a statement Saturday. (Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/Xinhua/IANS)IANS

The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Sociology. The team collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US -- both before and during the pandemic.

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.

Pandemic impact on elderly

"Our findings show that despite rapid digitisation in the UK and elsewhere, virtual means of social interaction cannot replace in-person contact in supporting older people's mental health," explains Dr Hu. "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 ageing population."

The pandemic severely curtailed face-to-face contact between households, particularly for older people aged 60 and above, due to their high risk of falling severely ill if infected by COVID-19. This study examined how different forms of interactions between family and friends living in different households related to older adults' mental well-being during the pandemic.

Research Findings

  1. Face-to-face contact between family and friends living in different households was important for the over 60s' mental well-being in both the UK and the US.
  2. Although virtual communication has increased considerably during the pandemic, it was not a 'qualitatively equivalent alternative' for in-person contact.
  3. Virtual contact, when used on top of face-to-face contact, helped bolster mental well-being. 
  4. Patterns were very similar in both the UK and the US, despite the different contexts and pandemic responses.

The study suggests that public health policymakers and practitioners should address the looming mental health crisis cascading from the pandemic into the ageing population.

The findings also outline the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally-enhanced future in response to population ageing in the 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," said 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."