A group of nursing home residents

Older U.S. adults are showing signs of resilience and perseverance in the face of loneliness and isolation, according to an ongoing study by the University of Chicago.

Image of Louise Hawkley, Ph.D.
Louise Hawkley, Ph.D.

In fact, only 9% of study participants told researchers that they were experiencing “fair or poor overall mental health,” compared with 7% of respondents five years ago. Participants also were no more likely to report lacking companionship “at least sometimes” when compared with the earlier survey, and they were even slightly less likely to report feeling left out at least sometimes — measures that indicate loneliness, lead author Louise Hawkley, Ph.D., and colleagues wrote.

In contrast, the study found that general happiness has declined. The number of respondents reporting that they are very or extremely happy fell by half, with more now saying that they occasionally feel depressed or isolated. A large number of respondents also said they have reduced the frequency of in-person contacts since the pandemic’s start, but more than half reported unchanged or even increased frequency of in-person contact, the authors said.

Technology a coping mechanism

But there are signs that most older adults are substituting technology for in-person communication, the authors reported. 

About one third of the respondents who said they had decreased in-person contact with family living outside of their household also said they had increased communication using video calls (42%), messages (37%) and phone calls (32%). What’s more, 62% said that they had increased contact with family by one or more of these modes of communication, and 50% reported increasing their communication with friends via technology. 

Notably, 53% of older adults reported no change in their frequency of in-person contact with family outside their own household compared to before the pandemic. And a small share said they had increased their in-person social contact with family and friends living outside of their household. 

“[The results] should sensitize everyone to the reality of isolation’s impact but also the reality that people are resilient — and maybe even more so older adults than younger adults,” Hawkley told the Associated Press. “This is something we can learn from them — that there is survival.”

The situation in nursing homes is likely a different story, however. A recent nationwide study by nonprofit healthcare consulting firm Altarum found residents reporting a “drastic” reduction in social activities and a steep increase in reported feelings of loneliness during pandemic lockdowns.

In related news

Elders’ coping skills more effective than younger adults’ during pandemic Despite a higher risk of illness and death due to the pandemic, older adults have experienced less negative affect and are using more self-determined coping strategies than younger adults, according to a study published in The Gerontologist. “Older adults experienced less stress and less negative affect and used greater problem-focused coping and less avoidant coping in response to the pandemic than younger adults,” the authors wrote.