Research Snapshot: Social isolation and psychological distress among older adults related to COVID-19

What you need to know

Similar to other public health crises, the pandemic is having short- and long-term adverse mental health consequences among the general population, including increases in loneliness, anxiety and depression. Older adults are at increased risk of being socially isolated. The evidence suggests that physical distancing measures implemented worldwide have significantly affected the psychological well-being of individuals and how mental health care services are delivered to older adults.

Overall, the researchers provide a summary of the literature on remotely delivered interventions for older adults that target loneliness and/or psychological distress (e.g., depression and anxiety).

What is this research about?

Evidence shows that social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased reactivity to stressors, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, negative health outcomes and mortality risk. In order to reduce the negative effects of the pandemic, interventions focusing on isolation and loneliness are important. There are a range of benefits when interventions are designed to reduce social isolation and loneliness, but these interventions, although highly needed for older adults, are often lacking.

The researchers conducted a narrative review and provided a summary of the literature on remotely delivered interventions for older adults that target loneliness and/or psychological distress (e.g., depression and anxiety). In their review, the researchers:

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted a narrative literature review. The narrative review focused on remotely delivered interventions for older adults that target loneliness and/or psychological distress (e.g., depression and anxiety).

What did the researchers find?

From the narrative review, the researchers identified two types of remotely delivered interventions:

  1. Social isolation and loneliness interventions: These interventions help to reduce social disengagement and loneliness. Communication occurs with older adults and others through telephone or video conversation, or online social media platforms.
  2. Psychological interventions: These interventions typically target symptoms of depression and anxiety. The most common therapeutic method used in these interventions is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

The researchers also identified several barriers in implementing remotely delivered interventions, including:

The researchers further went on to provide general considerations and recommendations to address social isolation and distress in older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Evaluating the barriers to technology use

This includes:

Respecting privacy

The researchers recommend that staff or family should support older adults with setting up technology but let them have privacy during their personal conversations.

Keeping up to date on psychological practice guidelines

The researchers recommend that psychologists should consult the relevant practice guidelines for the practice of telepsychology.

Assessing for need and increasing awareness of treatment availability

The researchers recommend that older adults should be made aware (e.g., through print media, telephone referrals, e-mail, websites, social media, etc.) of the available programs that they can access.

Checking in with older adults

Older adults living in self-isolation will significantly reduce the contact they have with their communities and families due to the pandemic. It is important that older adults maintain regular contact with their families, friends and health care workers who can assess their mental health and well-being.

In this review, the researchers also described the type of intervention to implement and the delivery of interventions based on the living setting. They found that video calls worked for psychological interventions and communication between family and care recipients in long-term care (LTC) settings. They recommended telephone-based interventions for individuals without access to computer or Internet technologies. Furthermore, in LTC settings, video calls set up by staff reduced loneliness and depression. The researchers also found that telephone interactions reduced loneliness among older adults through community volunteer programs (e.g., befriending programs).

Limitations of the research

The researchers noted several limitations regarding the available evidence on this topic, including the following:

How can you use this research?

The researchers suggest that these approaches be translated to community and LTC settings while promoting uptake by considering the individual’s preference for delivery method and technological literacy. However, there is still a need for more research on evaluating and implementing remotely delivered interventions and the effects they have on individuals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and living settings.

About the researchers

Julie A. Gorenko1, Chelsea Moran1, Michelle Flynn1, Keith Dobson1, Candace Konnert1

  1. University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada

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