Social Distancing Has Increased Loneliness in Older Adults

A recent study has found that older adults reported experiencing increased loneliness and, therefore, a negative impact on their well-being due to social distancing regulations.

A lonely woman looking sad

Social distancing, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is increasing feelings of loneliness in Scotland's older population and impacting their well-being, according to a new University of Stirling study.

The findings emerge from research launched under the Scottish Government's Chief Scientist Office Rapid Research in COVID-19 programme in May. Professor Anna Whittaker of the University's Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, led the work and hopes it will help inform decision-making on the virus and support post-pandemic recovery strategies.

The researchers surveyed 1,429 participants; 84% percent were 60 or over and had a small social following. On average, the participants socialized five days per week, for more than 6.6 hours per week. More than half of the participants reported that social distancing made them experience more loneliness. Greater loneliness was associated with a smaller social network, lower perceived social support and a decrease in social support frequency, quality and amount, all of which was associated with a worsening of well-being and health. 

"We found that a larger social network and better perceived social support seems to be protective against loneliness and poorer health and well-being, due to social distancing. This underlines the importance of addressing loneliness and social contact in older adults, but particularly during pandemics or situations where the risk of isolation is high," notes Whittaker. 

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The research also looked at the impact of social distancing on physical activity. Of those surveyed, 35% reported being moderately active and 41% reported being highly active. Walking was the greatest contributor to total physical activity, with just over 26.4% walking more than before lockdown. Those living in rural areas reported greater volumes of physical activity.

"There appears to be a relationship between pre-lockdown physical activity and physical activity changes due to lockdown. This may be of significance in the context of trying to get older adults to maintain or increase physical activity, where appropriate, as we emerge from this pandemic, given our understanding of the benefits of physical activity in this age group,” said Whittaker.

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