Humans are social creatures. By connecting with others, humans not only survive but thrive. As we age however, many people find themselves more alone—leaving them vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness.
For the elderly, life stressors, loneliness, and poor mental health are often intertwined. There are multiple mental health risk factors for the elderly including physical, psychological, and economic challenges as they age. Social isolation and loneliness in older Australians can result from living alone, low family connection, reduced cultural connection, or difficulty participating in their community.
These life stressors can result in isolation, loneliness or psychological distress in older people and place them at risk of related health problems such as cognitive decline, disablement, heart disease, and depression. In Australia, men aged 80+ suicide at the highest rate of any age group.
While suicide is a complex topic, it is evident that social isolation is a key contributing factor to poor mental health in the elderly. With the advent of COVID-19 social distancing measures in place, all Australians are at increased risk for loneliness, though none more so than the elderly.
As a high-risk group for COVID-19, the elderly are required to isolate more strictly than others, potentially exacerbating existing mental health risk factors. Social distancing is changing the way we communicate, work, shop, socialise, exercise, manage our health, educate, and take care of family members. As a result, it is likely we will be facing a ‘new normal’—affecting how the elderly, their friends and their loved ones will be able to connect with each other now and in the future.
We partnered with Lead Researcher, Steph Perry, along with Ipsos, AMSRO, ESOMAR, and Research Got Talent to research and explore the impact COVID-19 is having on elderly Australians and what we might learn from it.
The research, conducted in with spur:org, Ipsos, AMSRO, and ESOMAR, was completed in a two-phased research approach starting with a qualitative component validated in a quantitative online survey with a sample of 1000 people. Download the press release. or view the full report.
Experiences of COVID-19 restrictions depend on how vulnerable the elder was prior to the pandemic.
This is not just from a social network and opportunity perspective but also their degree of autonomy, sense of purpose, mental and physical capacity, adaptability, and access. All these interconnected factors combined impact the resilience and coping skills of elders who are isolating.
Elders who have all these factors in their favour still have negative feelings about COVID-19 restrictions, however, their resilience to the situation helps them rise to the challenge, to remain connected to others, and settled in their situation—hunkering down and keeping themselves busy. Elders who were already vulnerable to these factors feel stuck, controlled, confused, angry and frustrated about the restrictions. Some described the experience as being caged.
This multifaceted finding reflects the literature. The World Health Organisation finds multiple mental health risk factors among elders including new physical, psychological, and economic challenges at their age. The Black Dog Institute also found that social isolation and loneliness in old age can result from living alone, low family connection, reduced cultural connection, or difficulty participating in their community.
It is clear that this is a complex topic that pre-dates COVID-19 and goes beyond the social opportunities that COVID-19 restrictions take away.
Social isolation is considered a poor experience by elders if it is not their choice. There is a marked difference in experiences, perceptions and attitudes between those who feel they have autonomy and those who don’t.
Sense of purpose
A sense of purpose is important in retirement but critical during COVID-19. While COVID-19 taking away social opportunities is hard, it does not deprive an elder of all joy in their day-to-day life if they have a sense of purpose.
Capacity and capability
Without the incidental mental and physical exercise from socialising, elders see a decline in their capabilities. Capacity and capability are strong indicators of coping and resilience. Physical, mental and cognitive capacity has always been a challenge for the elder as they age.
Access to information
While access to resources has been the focus of support during COVID-19, access to reliable information has been neglected for many elders. A lack of reliable and straight forward information has been a major pain point for many elders—inside and outside of facilities.
Access to resources
Access to technological resources is a key issue that is starting to be addressed. While access to technological resources for elders has received major attention from the media, government, NGOs, and brands, this was a minor barrier for elders who live independently. Aged care facilities are the exception.
Brief but frequent social interactions can be enough to get through the day. Spending quality time with a few close people is always important. However, when it is hard to spend this valuable time together, having frequent brief social encounters can help maintain connection and pass the time for elders. A small interaction can be enough to get through the day.
Factors that all cross-generational friendships have in common—forming cardinal rules of engagement.
Core relationship dynamics:
The relationship dynamic dictates the broad roles the Old Mate and Young Mate play in each others lives.
Relationship typologies are the sub-groups found within cross-generational friendships. Each has a specific profile is a subset of a core relationship dynamic.
The Elders relationship dynamic sees the Old Mate have the role of the senior and the Young Mate as the junior. The Young Mates admire and respect their Old Mate, who nurtures them by passing on wisdom, knowledge and experiences. Represents 67% of friendships.
The Old Mate is the leader and the Young Mate the follower.
Higher. The more family and friendship is combined the closer they are.
Loved, satisfied, trusted, helpful, supported
The Equals relationship dynamic is one of peers—where age is not a factor. These friendships are often a by-product of an external factor from which they bond. The Young Mate and Old Mate have similar values but enjoy learning from each others differences.
The Old Mate and the Young Mate are equals and peers.
Lower. The higher the sense of friendship the closer they are.
Trusted, satisfied, helpful, content, calm
The Enabler relationship is mostly driven by the Young Mate and fostered by their need and want to help. However, the Old Mate must also have a need for help and willingness to accept help. They both value the giving of help but also enjoy the incidental connection that comes from helping.
The Young Mate is the leader and the Old Mate the follower.
Mid. The higher the sense of family the closer they are.
Loved, helpful, trusted, content, satisfied
Some relationships have changed, but most Young Mates feel they have stayed the same.
However, those who feel their relationship dynamics are changing for the worse, are severely struggling to maintain their friendship.
As expected, relationship contact is seeing a large reduction in physical contact. However Young Mates are still seeing their Old Mate in person about the same amount or only reduced a little. Of all forms of contact phone calls have increased most but are still significantly more likely to have stayed the same. Interestingly, video calls are mostly seen as not applicable—reflecting the results that many Young Mates feel that having the ability and resources to use technology for connecting is not at all important to their relationship.
COVID-19 impact on relationship contact:
Emotional changes and barriers are having a greater impact than physical ones.
Some relationships have changed but most Young Mates and Old Mates feel they have stayed the same. For those that have noticed changes for the worse in their relationship dynamic, it can be extremely detrimental for their relationship. It is important to consider both emotional and physical challenges in the maintenance of cross-generational friendships.
There are common activities but they are adapted to the type of relationship.
Differences in activities is less about when they are done and more about how and why they are done. For example, ‘helping out’ is the key activity done by Young Mates with their Old Mates to stay connected, both during and after COVID-19 restrictions. However Old Mate and Young Mates helping out, will not look the same to everyone as they adapt the concept to suit their relationship dynamic and typology.
Keeping connected during COVID-19 is not just about connecting with others but also with oneself.
Old Mates and Young Mates recommend taking a balanced approach, where you do a little of everything including new protective, social and individual behaviours. It is important to take a balanced approach—doing small and simple tasks to keep yourself calm, connected, engaged and protected.
This summary is just the tip of the iceberg!
Download the full report by click on the image below: