If the last years have taught us anything, it is the importance of social connectedness. Worldwide sweeping measures were put in place to limit the degree to which people could gather, connect, and physically be in one another's presence. For individuals who were particularly at risk for the negative outcomes associated with the coronavirus, such as immuno-compromised individuals and older adults, these measures were put in place early and kept in place longer. Before the general population had been forced into lockdowns, in many parts of the world older adults had already been isolating for days, weeks, if not months. As we (hopefully) near the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it is important to take stock of the lessons learned andlook towards ways in which we might foster a post-pandemic world that is more socially connected than ever.
It is well established that as people grow older their social spheres diminish (Bruine de Bruin et al., 2020). As a result of mortality, physical distance, monetary limitations, functional challenges, and a host of logistic and pragmatic reasons, older adults often have fewer social contacts than younger age groups. This is not to say that the quality of these relationships diminish, but there is strong evidence that the quantity of these relationships decrease. When an individual experiences few social contacts, this is known as social isolation. A similar, but slightly different construct, is the subjective experience that one perceives as negative emotions associated with a lack of social connectedness: loneliness. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with a host of negative implications, ranging from depression and anxiety to early mortality (Choi et al, 2015) (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). As a result, these negative aspects of older adults’ lives have been an area of investigation in the gerontological world for decades.
In the pre-pandemic era, pockets of researchers around the world were diligently working on addressing the issues of social isolation and loneliness amongst older adults. As a personal note, I spent my postdoc trying to identify sources of resilience related to social connectedness. Through the use of large-scale longitudinal studies of ageing, my colleagues and I were able to examine factors that were associated with greater mental health, but also factors that mediated the relationships between adversities and negative outcomes, fostering greater resilience. Using the National Survey on Health and Development, a British birth cohort study capturing over 5,000 individuals born in one week in 1956, we identified social connectedness as an important resilience fostering factor. Specifically, we found that social connections mediated roughly a quarter of the relationship between early childhood adversity and later life mental distress (Cosco et al., 2018). These findings suggest that if we can foster greater social connections amongst older adults this might foster greater resilience and a greater capacity to be able to deal with the negative implications of various adversities.
We are yet to fully realize the negative implications of deteriorations in the capacity to connect socially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact on the mental health of older adults has not been fully realized, despite numerous studies emerging suggesting that mental health amongst older adults has deteriorated to a considerable degree (De Pue et al., 2021). Within a Canadian context, throughout the pandemic, we saw odds of depressive symptoms double in older adults (Raina et al., 2021). Further, my colleagues and I examined the impact of worsened ability to engage in social activity and the mental health of older adults in the Canadian Longutidunal Study on Aging . Our results indicate that older adults who had worsened ability to participate in social activity were more likely to experience depressive and anxiety symptoms than older adults whose ability to engage socially was better or the same (Cosco et al., 2021). These findings have important implications for the provision of mechanisms through which older adults can connect socially and for the enforcement of viral transmission measures that inhibit social connectedness.
Technologies for social connection have seen a significant uptick in use and utilization in the peri-pandemic era. Previously platforms such as Skype and Zoom saw reasonable usage, but in the increasing push towards working from home and in limitations for social contact, many social connections moved from in-person to digital platforms. For many, this was a saving grace for the maintenance of social connectedness, but for older adults who fell on the wrong side of the digital divide, this may have resulted in further isolation (Seifert, 2020). The digital divide refers to barriers experienced by older adults that prevent the use and uptake of digital services, such as physiological limitations or deficits in digital literacy. Unfortunately, one of the real tragedies of the furthering of the digital divide during the pandemic is that older adults that were already disadvantaged, socially isolated, or marginalized in some capacity were more likely to experience the negative aspects of the digital divide, which may have exacerbated their already high levels of social isolation and loneliness (Cosco et al., 2021).
Moving forward into a world where regular in-person social interaction is once again possible, I believe that in-person and digital mechanisms for social connectedness can be complementary in fostering greater mental health amongst older adults. Wherever possible, being able to connect with people face to face, is preferable; however, this may not be possible for a variety of reasons whether it be distance or convenience. This where making inroads into greater digital literacy and the integration of digital tools into the lives of older adults may make it possible to foster increased social connectedness above and beyond what is possible with in-person interactions. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for maintaining social connectedness; however, as we move into greater in-person socialization, perhaps integrating some of the lessons learned about the role of technology may prove to be beneficial in the long term.
About the Author
Theodore D Cosco joined the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in 2016 as a Research Fellow. Dr. Cosco is a Chartered Psychologist (British Psychological Society) trained in applied social research methods (MSc 2011, Trinity College Dublin) and epidemiology (PhD 2015, University of Cambridge), and Assistant Professor of Mental Health and Aging in the Department of Gerontology, Simon Fraser University. His research interests include resilience, mental health, and the interface between technology and healthy ageing.
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