Researchers at the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at Trinity College Dublin and ALONE have recently published a report which examines issues of loneliness and social isolation in older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. This report offers an insight into experiences of those over 70, and the toll “cocooning” has taken on their mental health.
Previous research shows that strong social connections protect people from emotional distress, cognitive decline, and physical disability. A report on loneliness and social isolation published by TILDA in 2019 found that both loneliness and social isolation are associated with poorer quality of life.
TILDA’s research shows that prior to the pandemic, over 70% of TILDA participants reported that they never or rarely feel lonely; less than 25% feel lonely some of the time while just 5% reported feeling lonely often. Of those living alone, 31% are rarely lonely, 32% sometimes lonely and 37% often lonely.
As measures were introduced to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, nearly 500 smartphones were distributed to older adults with limited means of social interaction. ALONE has since then dedicated a phone line to provide support to vulnerable adults who may need them. ALONE’s research shows that from March 9th to July 5th, 2020 the ALONE national support line has received 26,174 calls during the period, covering a variety of issues, from clarification of government guidelines to difficulties with social distancing or cocooning. Volunteers now phone, and send regular texts to older people with short health and wellbeing tips and reminders to make contact if they are feeling lonely, down or in need of practical support.
ALONE’s helpline has shown that there has been an increase in loneliness and reports of negative emotions. 75% of the callers were living alone, and 55% of callers were over 70. There has been a rise in callers reporting negative emotions, including suicidal ideation. Additionally, more older people are calling and reporting physical pain. Many callers have deferred engaging with health services because of anxiety about COVID-19; some have reported having fallen but not sought medical treatment or examination.
This data highlights that measures such as social distancing and cocooning has increased levels of loneliness in older people, which may have a negative effect on the well being of older adults.
Professor Rose Anne Kenny, Principal Investigator of TILDA said:
“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.”
“The impact of the pandemic is now being studied in the TILDA cohort and will be reported later this year. This will more precisely inform the impact of COVID-19 on loneliness and social isolation, and areas for policy intervention.’’
A future research project led by TILDA in collaboration with ALONE will investigate and document the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and general well-being of older adults.