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Seniors’ Emotional and Social Health During the Pandemic: Most are Faring Well though Some Face Greater Challenges

Early in the pandemic, it became clear that seniors are among the groups most at-risk for experiencing adverse health outcomes due to COVID-19. Although the physical effects of the virus on this population have appropriately garnered substantial attention, it is similarly important to understand how the pandemic is affecting other aspects of seniors’ well-being, such as their emotional and social health. The Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative, longitudinal study of older Americans, recently released data collected between June and October of 2020 that provides insight on this subject.

Senior’s Mental and Emotional Well-Being

Overall, the majority of survey respondents over age 65 expressed a high level of concern regarding the pandemic. On a scale of one to ten, more than two-thirds said their level of concern was eight or higher. Despite concern over the pandemic, however, most seniors seem to be managing well emotionally. Only 6 percent said they have often felt emotionally overwhelmed since the pandemic began and only 9 percent said they have often felt stressed, although 35 percent said they have sometimes felt emotionally overwhelmed and 46 percent said they have sometimes felt stressed since the pandemic began (Figure 1). Given their greater susceptibility to the illness, however, we might expect older seniors to experience greater distress than younger seniors. However, younger seniors (65-75 years of age) and older seniors (over age 75) reported being stressed or emotionally overwhelmed at about the same frequency.

Furthermore, only 4 percent of seniors said they have often felt lonely since the pandemic began, although 38 percent said they have sometimes felt lonely. Most seniors, 67 percent, said their frequency of feeling lonely has not changed with the pandemic, and in fact, 5 percent said they have felt lonely less often since the start of the pandemic. However, more than a quarter of seniors, 28 percent, said they have felt lonely more often since the pandemic began. Frequency of loneliness did not vary much between younger seniors and older seniors.


Figure 1. Percent of adults age 65 and older who have felt stressed, overwhelmed, or lonely since the start of the pandemic

Source: Health and Retirement Study, https://hrs.isr.umich.edu/data-products.   


Other survey questions asked how often a person has experienced feelings such as stress, depression, or loneliness in the past week. Surveys from previous years ask these questions too, allowing us to compare responses from 2020 with previous years. Comparing 2020 responses with the 2016 survey results shows that the percent of seniors experiencing stress, depression, or loneliness in the past week is nearly the same in both years (Figure 2).  


Fig. 2 Percent of adults age 65 and older who felt lonely, sad, or depressed in the past week: 2016 and 2020

Source: Health and Retirement Study, https://hrs.isr.umich.edu/data-products


While these data suggest most seniors are weathering the pandemic well emotionally, some are struggling more than usual during this time. It is also possible that more seniors will experience emotional challenges as the pandemic wears on.


Social Well-being

Relationships with family members and friends are important to emotional well-being, but the pandemic has created barriers to gathering with our friends, family, and other members of our communities. In 2020, roughly three-quarters of seniors surveyed said since the pandemic began they had left their homes less frequently and decreased the frequency of travel to visit family or attend church.

Technology has helped fill the social void for many Americans, but what about seniors who may not be as familiar with these tools? Survey responses show that some seniors are using social media and video conferencing platforms to connect, although a large number are not. However, many are using good old-fashioned phone calls to keep in touch with others, as well as using email and snail mail.

Twenty percent of seniors said they use apps such as FaceTime or Skype to connect with family and friends daily or several times a week, and another 22 percent say they use these types of apps to connect with family and friends at least once a month. Nearly 40 percent say they never use these technologies, although the majority of seniors own devices that would allow them to do so; 82 percent say they own a smartphone and 61 percent own an iPad, while 67 percent own a desktop computer, and 62 percent own a laptop computer. Seniors over age 75 are less likely to own these devices than younger seniors though and are also somewhat less likely to use video call apps like FaceTime or Skype to connect with loved ones (over half of older seniors say they never use these technologies to connect with family or friends).  

Comparing 2020 data to 2016 data shows that seniors’ engagement with social media and video conferencing apps has increased substantially over time. Far more seniors are using platforms such as Facebook or Skype to connect with family and friends in 2020 than were doing so four years ago (Figure 3). More seniors are also emailing or writing to their family and friends weekly in 2020 compared to 2016 (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Percent of adults age 65 and older communicating by social media (Facebook, Skype, etc.) at least once per week: 2016 and 2020

Source: Health and Retirement Study, https://hrs.isr.umich.edu/data-products


Figure 4. Percent of adults age 65 and older emailing or writing at least once a week to children, family members, and friends  

Source: Health and Retirement Study, https://hrs.isr.umich.edu/data-products


Whether the increase in seniors’ use of social media, video conferencing, and email is a direct result of the pandemic is unclear, but roughly one quarter of seniors, 27 percent, say they have learned to use a new technology device, application, or computer program since the start of the pandemic. Thirty percent of seniors also strongly agree or somewhat agree that since the pandemic began they have found new ways to connect socially (another 30 percent agree slightly that they have found new ways to connect socially since the pandemic began).

Beyond video calls and social media, seniors continue to keep in touch with family members and friends over the phone. In 2020 the majority of seniors, 72 percent, said they talk to their children over the phone every week, which was about the same percentage of seniors who said so in 2016. Furthermore, in both 2016 and 2020, nearly half of seniors said they spoke with other family members over the phone at least once a week and about half also said they spoke over the phone with friends weekly. These numbers were roughly the same for older and younger seniors in 2020.  

Overall, in 2020 roughly the same number of seniors—slightly more, in fact—said they often had someone they could talk to compared to 2016. In 2020, 68 percent said they often had someone to talk to, while 62 percent said the same in 2016. The numbers were nearly the same for older seniors as for younger seniors.

Interestingly, despite seniors spending less time outside their homes or traveling to see family, most seniors still said they were meeting up with family members and friends as frequently in 2020 as they were in 2016. Perhaps some 2020 respondents counted virtual meetups in their responses, or perhaps people had resumed meeting up with family members when this data was collected, as restrictions in many places in the United States were eased during the summer months. Respondents’ answers may be different now as COVID-19 cases have been increasing and more states have reinstated restrictions.  

Besides keeping in touch with family members and friends, nearly a quarter of seniors, 24 percent, said they had received help with tasks such as grocery shopping, running errands, or doing chores from someone outside of their home due to the pandemic. Older seniors were more likely to say they had received help with these tasks (33 percent) as compared to younger seniors (19 percent). (As noted in a previous Social Capital Project piece, several organizations established during the pandemic help seniors with tasks such as grocery shopping.)

About a quarter of seniors, 22 percent, also said they had helped someone outside their household with grocery shopping, running errands, or chores. Younger seniors were much more likely to have helped someone outside of their household (30 percent) than older seniors (9 percent). And while a small percentage of seniors (3 percent) had received financial help from family members or friends as a result of the pandemic, a much larger share (18 percent) had provided help to someone outside their household.

Conclusion

Overall, seniors appear to be faring well emotionally and finding ways to maintain social connections during the pandemic, at least about as well as they did prior to the pandemic. Some seniors are receiving help with tasks they are not able to perform or do not feel comfortable doing right now, and some are also lending a hand to help others with such tasks or providing financial help to friends and family in need. Encouragingly, nearly 60 percent of seniors said they agree, at least to some extent, that they feel closer to members of their community since the pandemic started.

Still, this does not negate the experiences of those seniors who have faced greater emotional struggles and loneliness the last several months. While many communities and organizations have made efforts to help seniors during the pandemic, continuing this work will be important to help seniors stay connected and cared for, particularly those seniors with fewer social ties.

In order to make sure this happens, policymakers should cut red tape to ensure that non-profit organizations have the ability to fulfill their missions. Family members, friends, and neighbors must continue to reach out to seniors to help them find new ways to connect virtually or otherwise, as well as to help meet other needs. Building these and other connections today can help seniors make it through this difficult time, while also developing valuable community ties that last well past the pandemic.

Rachel Sheffield
Senior Policy Advisor

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