Older adults faced with increased loneliness amid social distancing

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A study from the University of Stirling found that COVID-19 has affected older adults' well-being

Since older adults are more vulnerable to COVID-19, they’ve had to take social distancing measures more seriously than some other members of the population.

However, doing so has led to feelings of loneliness among people over 60, according to a recent study from Scotland’s University of Stirling.

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Findings from researchers show an association between more loneliness and worsened health and well-being. More loneliness related to social distancing was linked to lower perceived social support and a smaller social network, according to the study. The study begun in May under the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist Office Rapid Research in COVID-19 program.

“Previous studies have demonstrated the negative impacts of social isolation and loneliness,” behavior medicine professor Anna Whittaker, of Stirling’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport said in a statement. “This is a key issue for older adults who may be more likely to have few social contacts. We know that social distancing guidelines introduced in response to COVID-19 have restricted social activity engagement and impacted vulnerable groups, including older adults.”

Led by professor Whittaker, researchers surveyed over 1,400 older adults to analyze how social distancing impacted social activity, well-being and loneliness. Most respondents said that social distancing has made them have less social contact in general and they feel more alienated.

“We found that a larger social network and better perceived social support seems to be protective against loneliness and poorer health and wellbeing, due to social distancing," Whittaker said. "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.”

Most of the 1,429 survey takers — 84% — were 60 or older and on average had five people in their social circle. Participants socialized an average of five days a week for over 6.6 hours weekly. More loneliness due to social distancing measures was reported by 56% of respondents.

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While social distancing affected socializing it didn’t negatively affect physical activity.

Most participants kept up with physical activity guidelines during lockdown as 35% reported being moderately active and 41% said they were highly active. Walking was a main factor during lockdown as 26.4% reported they’d strolled more than before lockdown; even more physical activity was reported for people residing in rural areas. Some participants, however, reported less physical activity and experienced worsened well-being.

“Physical activity engagement during lockdown varied and this study indicates a positive link with wellbeing – supporting the notion that physical activity should be considered an important contributor in recovery strategies targeted at older adults as we emerge from the pandemic," Whittaker said. ”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."