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Virtual Contact Alone Did Not Mitigate Loneliness for Seniors During COVID-19

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Key Takeaways

  • Seniors in the U.K. and the U.S. still reported loneliness despite virtual communication during the pandemic
  • When virtual communication accompanied in-person interaction, mental health was improved
  • Older populations should be supported with safe in-person interaction to protect their mental health and prevent loneliness

Many have struggled with loneliness during the pandemic due to quarantine measures. According to a recently published study in Frontiers in Sociology, elderly individuals in the U.K. and the U.S. still reported loneliness when in-person interaction was replaced by virtual communication.

Especially as the U.S. struggles to manage the delta variant, it will be particularly important to consider how best to support the mental health of seniors, as they represent a particularly vulnerable population.

Ideally, vaccination rates will increase significantly across the country so that the elderly will not be restricted to only virtual communication for the sake of their physical health at the grave risk of their mental well-being.

Understanding the Research

This study surveyed a total of 6,539 seniors across the U.K. and the U.S., to compare their mental health reports from 2018–2019 to June 2020.

Unfortunately, these findings indicate that virtual contact alone did not mitigate loneliness in the elderly during the pandemic. However, mental health was bolstered when virtual interactions were accompanied by in-person interaction.

A limitation of this research study is that inter-household contact was only measured at one time during the pandemic, so the findings are only a correlation. Meaning that loneliness is only related to interaction type and not necessarily caused by it. 

The Unique Needs of Seniors

Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW, says, “It is not surprising that seniors were more lonely even with virtual contact. For many seniors who have limited or no knowledge regarding technology, it would create anxiety and stress to be forced to engage in conversations with loved ones in this manner.”

Given that virtual communication may emphasize the distance from loved ones that the pandemic created, Waichler highlights how it may have reinforced the state of isolation they were in, through no fault of their own.

Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW

Especially for seniors with hearing, cognitive, or visual impairments, using a computer or technology can emphasize these limitations and increase frustration, anxiety and possibly create depression.

— Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW

Waichler says, “Especially for seniors with hearing, cognitive, or visual impairments, using a computer or technology can emphasize these limitations and increase frustration, anxiety and possibly create depression. It can also create feelings of helplessness and low self-worth if there are times when virtual connections were not achieved.”

Since research has shown that physical contact and touch with other people stimulate endorphins like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, Waichler explains how this triggers hormones that reduce stress and create feelings of calm. “Virtual contact does not offer this option,” she says.

Social Connection Matters

Scott Kaiser, MD, board-certified geriatrician and director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, says, “This study provides additional insight into, and urgency around, the need to address the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on older people—including related increases in social isolation and loneliness.”

When asked about the key takeaway from this study, Kaiser emphasizes that social connection matters, which is why addressing social isolation should be a key public health priority across the U.S., but this research elucidates why it may not lend itself easily to a one-size-fits-all approach. Beyond the inability to attribute causality, Kaiser explains that ill-considered and over-reaching conclusions neglect the complexity and nuance of the variables.

Kaiser says, “It’s hard to think of a patient who hasn’t struggled, in some way, with the isolation stemming from staying at home, socially distancing and other measures necessary to protect oneself—and others—from the spread of COVID-19. Some have really suffered—experiencing a crushing sense of loneliness, disconnected from critical support networks, and cut off from services and resources that they’ve come to depend upon.”

Scott Kaiser, MD

Some have really suffered—experiencing a crushing sense of loneliness, disconnected from critical support networks, and cut off from services and resources that they’ve come to depend upon.

— Scott Kaiser, MD

In this way, certain groups have been at increased risk of loneliness, as Kaiser highlights the challenges faced by individuals with dementia and their caregivers. “I’ve also seen the incredible difference that people safely reaching out to keep those connections—and make new ones—can have and the degree to which it can improve health and well-being,” he says.

Kaiser says, “While, as suggested by this study, sometimes there is no substitute for good old-fashioned in-person contact, I’ve also seen the power of virtual connections. Throughout the pandemic, there has been somewhat of a renaissance in social call programs—born out of necessity—and the impacts have been remarkable.”

“There are countless examples—ranging from a small act of kindness to something seemingly life-saving—in which a friendly, empathic call has been just what the doctor ordered and the best immunization to protect from the ills of isolation and loneliness.”

What This Means For You

As this research study demonstrates, virtual contact alone was ineffective at supporting the mental health of seniors. To safely visit elderly loved ones, individuals will need to make a greater effort to get vaccinated, wear masks, meet in public spaces and adhere to social distancing, etc. The mental and physical wellbeing of seniors will depend on a commitment to taking these responsible actions.

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  1. Hu Y, Qian Y. COVID-19, inter-household contact and mental well-being among older adults in the US and the UK. Front Sociol. 2021;6:714626. doi:10.3389/fsoc.2021.714626