Anne Krendl, Ph.D.

Although seniors spent more time socializing online, depression and loneliness increased during the height of pandemic lockdowns this spring, a single-location study finds.

Investigators compared personal social networks, subjective loneliness and depression in 93 older adults prior to the pandemic and during April and May, when shelter-in-place orders were in force in Bloomington, Indiana.

Most of the study participants reported having less time with loved ones and that their mental health was negatively affected during this time period. But they also seemed to be adapting to their situation, said researchers Anne Krendl, Ph.D., and Brea Perry, Ph.D., of Indiana University. Fully 60% reported spending “somewhat or much more time” reconnecting or catching up with contacts, and 78% said that they used internet technology to do so. They also reported spending an average of 76 minutes a day socializing virtually or over the phone.

Notably, some mental health outcomes were tied to the perceived strength of these relationships, not to social engagement itself, Krendl said.

“[W]e found that adults who felt less close to their social network during the pandemic experienced increased depression. However, for older adults who felt closer to their social networks during the pandemic, depression only increased markedly for those who also had experienced a large increase in loneliness,” she explained. 

“Having close social networks seemed to serve as a protector,” Krendl concluded.

The researchers plan to follow up with participants to investigate whether the changes in their mental health are short-term or long-term. The study took place in Bloomington, Indiana.

Full findings were published in The Journals of Gerontology.