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Virtual visits during COVID-19 may have led to more loneliness among older people

Last Updated Jul 26, 2021 at 11:52 am PDT

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FaceTime, Zoom meetings haven't been able to replace in-person visits for older people during the pandemic

Researchers found increase in loneliness, decline in mental well-being among people aged 60 and up

Authors of joint study suggest policy makers address 'looming mental health crisis' for this age group

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – While FaceTime and Zoom hangouts have become a staple for social interactions through the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual connections may have actually led to older people feeling even more lonely.

Joint research from UBC and the University of Lancaster found video chats, texts, and phone calls were not helpful on their own for older people, and couldn’t measure up to seeing someone in person.

The study surveyed 5,148 people aged 60 and up in the U.K. and 1,391 in the U.S. both before (2018-2019) and during (June 2020) the pandemic.

The research article found there was a “notable increase in loneliness” among respondents in the U.S. and “decline in general mental well-being” in the U.K. following the outbreak of COVID-19. The authors found older adults in the States who have had more virtual contact were actually more likely to feel lonely, particularly if they didn’t have much in-person interaction.

“Although face-to-face contact between households helped to sustain older adults’ mental well-being, virtual contact was not a qualitatively equivalent alternative,” the article states.

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But the authors note virtual interactions can “complement” face-to-face interactions in supporting older people’s mental well-being.

In their conclusion, the researchers point to “the looming mental health crisis cascading from the pandemic into this age group.”

“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. 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.”

Meantime, it appears the pandemic has led more Canadians to dread the thought of themselves or their loved ones being in long-term care. A new survey by Angus Reid finds more than 80 per cent of respondents say their views on long-term care have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Three-quarters of respondents say significant changes, if not a complete overhaul, should happen in long-term care, however responses were divided on how to do that.
The same percentage of respondents say they would support making long-term care a fully integrated part of the public health system.

About half say they will do whatever they can to keep themselves and close family members out of long-term care.

The results are based on an online survey conducted from March 15 to March 18, 2021 among a representative randomized sample of 1,503 Canadian adults.