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Elders Who Live Alone See Benefits in Interacting with Others

Elders Who Live Alone See Benefits in Interacting with Others

For older adults living alone during the pandemic, in-person visits bring benefits to emotional wellbeing distinct from what they experience from phone calls or electronic communication, University of Texas at Austin researchers have found.

In a study out this month in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Social Science, researchers surveyed 226 people age 69 and up in May and June 2020 to determine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of older adults. Of those surveyed, 81 lived alone and 145 lived with spouses, family or other people. Nearly all the older adults were taking safety precautions, sheltering in place and avoiding contact with people outside their home.

The study found that older adults who live alone are more affected by social contact during the pandemic. Individuals who live alone experienced more positive emotions when they saw someone in person than people who had no contact.

"These older adults were also appropriately aware that in-person contact could put them at high risk of a life-threatening disease," said Karen Fingerman, an author of the study and co-director of the Texas Aging and Longevity Center at The University of Texas at Austin. She recommended that those who seek to support emotional well-being in older adults living alone with in-person contact do so "while following safety guidelines for COVID-19, such as limited contact with other individuals who are also sequestering, keeping that contact at a distance of at least 6 feet, visiting outside and mask wearing."

For those living alone, phone calls actually were often linked to negative emotions, especially loneliness.

"This is not to discourage people from reaching out to older loved ones by phone," Fingerman said. "But it is important to be aware of potential impacts and plan around that."

Fingerman suggested older adults living alone might schedule phone calls on days they may also see a friend in person from a distance and while wearing a face mask.

The study found that friends play an important role for older adults living alone. Those living alone had more contact with friends, both in-person and by phone, than with family members during the pandemic.

Most of the participants reported that contact with family members was the same or more frequent during the pandemic. Those who live alone reported more frequent contact with friends.

Ye To Ng, Shiyang Zhang and Katherine Britt of The University of Texas at Austin, Gianna Colera of Texas State University, Kira S. Birditt of the University of Michigan and Susan T. Charles of the University of California at Irvine also contributed to the research. The research was funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging and a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.