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Virtual contact was worse for older people during the pandemic than no contact, study finds

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in early 2020, people around the world found themselves confined to their homes and limited to speaking to friends and loved ones via phone or video chat.

But rather than helping alleviate isolation, this virtual contact was more likely to result in older people feeling lonely, according to the results of a study published Monday.

Researchers from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom and the University of British Columbia observed a "notable increase" in loneliness in the U.S. and a decline in general mental well-being in the U.K. following the outbreak of COVID-19.

The team collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the U.K. and 1,391 in the U.S., who were surveyed both before and during the pandemic.

While regular face-to-face contact between households was associated with better mental well-being, virtual contact using phones or digital media -- through phone calls, texting, online audio and video chat, and social media -- was not associated with better mental health in either country.

The study found that older U.S. adults who had more frequent virtual contact were more likely to feel lonely than those who had infrequent face-to-face or virtual contact, especially when face-to-face contact was limited.

Older adults who had more regular in-person contact with friends and family throughout the pandemic had better mental well-being, but virtual interactions were not associated with better mental well-being in either country.

Dealing with technology can be stressful

"We find that face-to-face contact is essential in helping maintain older adults' mental well-being," Yang Hu, senior lecturer in sociology and data science at Lancaster and author of the paper, told CNN, noting that virtual contact was not "qualitatively equivalent."

"It's surprising that virtual contact is associated with greater loneliness and mental distress than no contact, but then again, not so surprisingly, a wide array of research did document the digital burden, stress, and reluctance experienced by some in the ageing population," Hu explained.

"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," he added.

Hu said policymaking needed to focus on equipping older adults with the tools and knowledge to use digital products and protect them from stress and burnout.

Whereas almost all (99 per cent) adults aged 16 to 44 years in the UK were recent internet users within the previous three months, only 54 per cent of adults aged 75 years and over were classed as such, according to the Office For National Statistics (ONS), citing data collected by the Labour Force Survey (LFS) between January and March 2020.

However, the proportion of those aged 75 and over who were recent internet users had nearly doubled, from 29 per cent in 2013, the ONS said.

"Older people are typically extremely resilient, but the disruption to daily life and enforced isolation during the Coronavirus pandemic has hit some very hard," Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age U.K., said in a statement.

"For the older people that can use it, technology has been invaluable, helping them keep in touch with loved ones and feel connected. However, social contact promotes our wellbeing and helps to stave off loneliness in later life. So whilst digital technology has advanced and has become increasingly sophisticated, it will never be a substitute for social interaction or human contact," Abrahams added.

Previous research has found that talking on video-conference services like Zoom during the coronavirus pandemic helped older people stave off the effects of dementia.

Researchers from the University of West London's Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory found that regular communication helps maintain long-term memory, and elderly people who often use online tools showed less decline in memory than those who don't. Top Stories

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