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Social needs of older adults can't be met by technology alone, says new COVID-19 research

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A University of British Columbia researcher is warning of a looming loneliness crisis for seniors, and says that a “digital-only” future won’t be able to support an aging population in the long term.

UBC sociologist Dr. Yue Qian, a co-author of a new study published in Frontiers in Sociology, says that virtual interaction, like phone calls, video calls and texting during pandemic lockdowns were not helpful on their own as an alternative to face-to-face time for people over 60.

“Our findings demonstrate that face-to-face household contact is crucial to sustaining older adults’ mental wellbeing,” Qian said.

The pandemic severely curtailed face-to-face contact between households, particularly for older adults, due to their high risk of developing severe illness if infected by COVID-19.

“Our findings show that despite rapid digitization in the U.K. and elsewhere, virtual means of social interaction cannot replace in-person contact in supporting older people’s mental health,” says first author Dr. Yang Hu of Lancaster University.

“This has to do with a complex set of factors, such as digital access, device affordance, tech know-how and potential digital stress among the aging population.”

However, virtual contact in addition to face-to-face contact was found to have a positive impact.

Qian and Hu analysed results from the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society COVID-19 Survey and the USA Health and Retirement Survey.

The data was collected from 5,148 people aged 60 and up in the U.K., and 1,391 people in the U.S. who were surveyed both before (2018–2019) and during (June 2020) the pandemic.

The results also show the limitations of technology in supporting seniors, Qian said.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental well-being,” Qian said.

“Beyond the context of the pandemic, the findings also indicate the need to enable strong inter-household ties to bolster public mental health in the long run.” Top Stories

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