New research highlights the increased loneliness in people over 70 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data collected by researchers at the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) and ALONE, an Irish organization that supports older people, finds increased feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and isolation in older adults since measures were put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Previous research has shown that strong social ties may protect people from emotional distress, cognitive decline, and physical disability, while loneliness and social isolation can cause harm to physical and psychological wellbeing. Both loneliness and social isolation have been strongly associated with poorer quality of life and other measures of well-being.

Before the pandemic, the TILDA study had found that:

  • more than 70 percent of participants in the study reported they never or rarely feel lonely;
  • less than 25 percent feel lonely some of the time;
  • just 5 percent reported feeling lonely often.

Of those living alone, 31 percent said they were rarely lonely, 32 percent said they were sometimes lonely, and 37 percent said they were often lonely.

Of those living with others, 49 percent were least lonely, 30 percent were sometimes lonely, and 21 percent said they were often lonely.

But measures designed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, including physical distancing and self-isolation — particularly by people over 70 who are “cocooning” — disrupted daily routines and social interactions with friends and family.

Following the outbreak of the virus, ALONE’s Support and Telephone Befriending service continued remotely with volunteers calling and sending texts to older people with health and well-being tips and practical support. Almost 500 smartphones were distributed to older adults with limited means of social interaction.

Following an increase in calls for support, ALONE established a dedicated phone line to provide help and services to vulnerable older adults who may have needed them.

ALONE data after the start of the pandemic shows:

  • ALONE national support line received 26,174 calls from March 9 to July 5, 2020;
  • 55 percent of callers were over 70, those people advised to “cocoon;”
  • 75 percent of callers were living alone;
  • an increase in callers putting off medical treatment or examination, including after falls;
  • ALONE officials reporting a rise in callers reporting negative emotions, including suicidal ideation, during the pandemic;
  • Callers most often requested support for their physical health, befriending, and emotional and mental health needs.

Researchers said they suspect that current physical distancing and social isolation measures will be most keenly felt by those who rely on community or church-based social participation and engagement.

”This collaborative report between ALONE and TILDA offers a unique perspective into how older adults have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Rose Anne Kenny, a professor at Trinity College Dublin and principal investigator of TILDA. “TILDA research shows that most older adults are not often lonely and highlights the resilience of older adults as they adapt to an ever-changing world. The world has witnessed how older adults have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. ALONE’s research provides front-line evidence that shows the true toll public health measures have had on older people with increased feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and isolation.”

Sean Moynihan, chief executive officer of ALONE, said, “ALONE’s coordinated national response to the COVID-19 pandemic allowed us to respond with immediacy to the concerns newly emerging and existing issues being elevated from older people.

“We worked to keep all our services operative through adaptation of their structures. The presence of this virus in society has further solidified existing issues while further alienating some older people, as we have seen extensive increases in loneliness through the isolation experienced from cocooning. We established a loneliness task force to ensure we were putting provisions in place to safeguard older people, presently, and into the future.”

Source: Trinity College Dublin