• Virtual contact during the pandemic increased loneliness in some over 60s, a study has found.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has undermined older adults’ mental well-being.
  • The study found a notable increase in loneliness in the US and a decline in general mental well-being in the UK.
  • Virtual interaction including phone calls, texting, online chat and social media was not helpful on its own as an alternative to face-to-face interaction.

Phone calls, text messages and online video chats during the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t enough to fill the void left by face-to-face interactions for older people.

In fact, loneliness increased in the US, while mental well-being declined in the UK, among those aged over 60 years old, according to researchers at Lancaster University.

The findings add to evidence that coronavirus containment measures have increased the risk for social isolation and loneliness. The researchers expected to uncover a preference for virtual communication over none at all, but the study, published in Frontiers in Sociology, found the opposite.

“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,” says Dr Yang 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.”

this chart shows the level of loneliness during COVID-19 vs pre-pandemic
How the pandemic has affected loneliness.
Image: Loneliness amid the pandemic

Isolation varies among older people

These themes - and others - were discussed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Longevity, which found a need for stronger and more resilient communities that foster greater participation and include people of all ages.

While social isolation and loneliness are major risk factors for poor physical and mental health, it’s important to remember that within the over-60s category, there is a great variation among people and attitudes, the Forum council found.

It also drew a distinction between the concept of social isolation and that of loneliness, pointing out that “someone who is socially isolated may not necessarily feel lonely”.

“Older adults are not a homogenous group,” says Sofiat Akinola, Project Lead on the Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare Platform at the World Economic Forum.

“So when we think of ways to address or reduce the risk of social isolation and loneliness among older adults, we must employ diverse interventions to have an inclusive response. We must strive for solutions that empower and not further alienate older adults.”

‘Looming’ mental health issues

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

There’s a need to address these “looming” mental health issues among older adults, the researchers at Lancaster University said.

Their article underscores the need for policy development. It suggests that public health policymakers and practitioners should 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,” the research said.