In a recent publication in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, researchers employed data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS), an annual in-home, longitudinal, nationally representative survey of Medicare beneficiaries, including individuals aged ≥65 years. The authors indicated that between June 2020 and October 2020, NHATS administered a supplemental survey to their regular annual assessment to explore changes to daily life, in addition to other areas, among older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors wrote, “Data for this study were taken from the COVID-19 supplement, including communication behavior with friends, family, and healthcare providers either in person or via digital technologies as well as feelings of anxiety or depression about the COVID-19 pandemic, and feelings of loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This study involved 3,188 participants, and researchers investigated demographic predictors of communication via phone calls, email, video calls, and in-person interactions with friends and family members during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also evaluated demographic predictors of doctor-patient communication via phone calls, email, video calls, and in-person visits during the COVID-19 pandemic and assessed feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness among respondents.

The results revealed that those who reported frequent use of video calls with friends and family and with healthcare providers were more likely to report feelings of anxiety/worry than those not using these modes of communication. In contrast, reports of in-person visits with friends and family and with healthcare providers were linked with fewer feelings of depression and loneliness.

The researchers’ findings revealed that around 20% of participants reported depression, and 25% reported feeling anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic. They also revealed that the prevalence of anxiety in older adults before COVID-19 was approximately 15%, which is lower than the reported feelings of anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic in their study.

Based on their findings, the authors concluded, “Our study documents demographic differences in digital and in-person communication with friends, family, and loved ones during COVID-19. We also discovered that in-person interactions with friends, family, and healthcare providers were associated with fewer mental health concerns. In contrast, interactions using digital technologies were associated with feelings of depression and anxiety about COVID-19. Future research may consider ways of tailoring technologies or bolstering digital literacy among older adult populations.”

In a press release, Rebecca Robbins, PhD, associate scientist, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, assistant professor, Harvard Medical School, and lead author of the study, stated, “Older adults faced an elevated risk of poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, necessary public health measures to reduce risk of COVID-19 may have exacerbated the risk for loneliness and mental health concerns among these individuals.”

Dr. Robbins added, “Given our study’s findings of increased feelings of anxiety and depression among older adults using digital technologies, we need to consider ways of designing technologies to meet the needs of older adults.”

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