More than half of adults aged 50 to 80 years (56%) reported feeling isolated or alone in 2020 compared with 27% of older adults in 2018, according to results from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging (NPHA).The increase may be indicative of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the capacity for older adults to maintain companionship and regular social interactions, noted the researchers.

The 2020 NPHA survey was administered online in June 2020 to a randomly selected group of adults aged 50 to 80 years (n=2074). The 2020 survey was a follow-up to a similar survey conducted in 2018. The researchers divided the poll into 3 categories: companionship, isolation, and frequency of social contact; then then asked patients to rate those areas from March to June 2020. The sample was weighted to reflect population data from the US Census Bureau.

Feeling a lack of companionship was reported by 41% of those surveyed. In June, 35% reported they had feelings of less companionship during the early months of the pandemic (March 2020), while 53% felt the same amount of companionship, and 12% felt more. In comparison, only 34% of older adults reported a lack of companionship in 2018.

When asked to compare feelings of isolation before and after the pandemic, 48% of participants said they felt more isolated after March 2020, 44% felt the same level of isolation, and 8% felt less isolated.  Nearly half of those surveyed (46%) reported infrequent social contact (once a week or less) with family, friends, or neighbors compared with 28% in 2018.


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Lack of companionship was disproportionately reported by women compared with men (47% vs 35%), people who lived alone compared with people who lived with others (50% vs 39%), those who were unemployed, disabled, or not working (52% vs 39% of retirees or employed individuals), and households with incomes less than $60,000 (46% vs 38%).

Participants who reported fair or poor physical health were more likely to feel a lack of companionship compared with participants who stated they had “very good” or “good” physical health (52% vs 39%). Mental health was also a factor in experiencing loneliness; 68% of participants who reported poor or fair mental health reported feeling a lack of companionship. Among participants with symptoms of depression, 84% reported feeling a lack of companionship compared with 36% among those with few symptoms of depression.

There were several subsets of the study population that were more likely to report an increase in feelings of isolation from March to June 2020, including women (61% vs 50%), people in fair or poor mental health (72% vs 55%), and people who reported symptoms of depression (89% vs 52%). Infrequent social contact was more common in men (52% vs 41%), people between 50 and 64 years of age (49% vs 42% of those over 65 years of age), and those who lived with others (48% vs 41% of those living alone). Those with poor health, mental health, and depressive symptoms also had less frequent social contact than their healthier counterparts.

The majority of older adults stated that they used social media (70%) and video chatting (57%) to connect with others outside of their home during the first 3 months of the pandemic; however, those who used social media were more likely to report feeling isolated (58% vs 51%). In contrast, older adults who reported spending time outdoors or interacting with nature at least once per week (75%) were less likely to report feeling isolated or a lack of companionship.

“It is important to recognize the pandemic’s impacts on the overall well-being of older adults and identify opportunities to mitigate them,” researchers said. “The increases in loneliness and infrequent social contact may be at least partially explained by the important public health strategies used to reduce the spread of [SARS-CoV-2] (eg, stay-at-home orders). Yet even during these challenging times, increased efforts should be made to identify older adults at higher risk of feeling lonely, isolated, or socially disconnected from others.”

Discolsure: This National Poll on Healthy Aging report presents findings from a nationally representative household survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, LLC for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

Reference

Malani P, Kullgren J, Solway E, Piette J, Singer D, Kirch M; on behalf of the University of Michigan. National Poll on Healthy Aging: loneliness among older adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. https://www.healthyagingpoll.org/report/loneliness-among-older-adults-and-during-covid-19-pandemic. Published September 14, 2020. Accessed September 21, 2020.