When isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual contact is worse for people over 60 than no contact at all, according to a new study. Scientists have found that keeping in touch with friends and family with the help of cutting-edge technologies makes many older people feel more lonely.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when restrictions on movement and communication began to be imposed, many elderly people have kept in touch with family and friends during isolation, using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. These opportunities have helped many people to avoid isolation. But, as a new study has shown, there is another side to such communication: virtual contact during the pandemic made many people over 60 feel more lonely and depressed than no contact at all.
According to The Guardian, one of the first studies that conducted a comparative assessment of social interactions between households and mental well-being during the pandemic showed that many older people experienced more loneliness and long-term mental disorders as a result of switching to online communication than those who conducted the pandemic on their own, without this kind of communication.
“We were surprised to find that an elderly person who had only virtual contact during isolation experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health consequences than an elderly person who had no contact with other people at all,” says Dr. Yang Hu from Lancaster University, co-author of a research report published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.
“We expected that virtual contact is better than complete isolation, but it seems that this does not apply to older people,” the scientist added.
According to Dr. Hu, the problem was that it was difficult for older people who were unfamiliar with technology to learn how to use them. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the widespread use of communication tools during isolation so stressful that it caused more harm to their mental health than if they simply faced isolation and loneliness.
“Extensive use of digital communications can also cause burnout,” says Dr. Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 and older in the UK and 1,391 people in the US – both before and during the pandemic.
“Not only loneliness was aggravated by virtual contact, but also overall mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a result of using virtual contact,” the scientist said.
The report “COVID-19, household contact and mental well-being among the elderly in the United States and the United Kingdom” analyzed national data obtained from the Understanding Society study funded by the British Council for Economic and Social Research and research on health and retirement in the United States.
Dr. Hu says that more attention needs to be paid to safe ways of personal contact in future emergencies. He also added that it is necessary to strengthen the digital potential of older age groups.
“We need to be prepared for natural disasters,” he said. “It is necessary to equip older people with digital capabilities to be able to use technology the next time a similar disaster occurs.”
According to Dr. Hu, the results obtained by the researchers revealed the limitations of a future based only on digital technologies, and the prospects for a future with improved digital technologies in response to an aging population in the long term.
“Policymakers and practitioners need to take action to prevent and mitigate the potential unintended effects of a household-focused pandemic response on mental well-being,” he said.
Caroline Abrahams, director of the charity Age UK, welcomed the results of the study. “We know that a virtual environment can exacerbate this feeling of not actually being with loved ones in person,” she said. – Therefore, it is important that the government makes the prevention of loneliness and the fight against it one of the main priorities of its policy, supported by adequate funding. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resistance to various health threats, and also leads to the fact that older people lose all hope in the twilight of their lives.”
Patrick Vernon, deputy director of the Center for Improving Aging, said he had seen many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways.”
But he also expressed doubts: “We know that even for those who are online, a lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the Internet as they would like.”
A previous study conducted by the Center on Aging showed that after the pandemic there was a significant increase in the use of digital technologies among people aged 50-70 years who were already online users.
But 3 million people across the UK are still not using the Internet, and a significant digital divide is affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven percent of people aged 50-70 years with an annual family income of fewer than 25 thousand pounds did not work before the pandemic.
Vernon said: “Our research showed that some people who were not online found it difficult to communicate with family, friends, and neighbors during the pandemic – and even those who were online argued that technology did not compensate for the lack of physical social interaction.”