Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.
Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.
But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found 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, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.
“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.
The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.
“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who 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.
“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.
The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.
Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.
“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”
The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.
“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.
“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.
“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”
Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.
But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”
Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.
But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.
Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”