How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the mental health of older adults? A UK case study

Since it was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), has spread to 191 countries and territories, infected over 87.75 million people, and claimed over 1.89 million lives.

As the new year begins, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose unprecedented challenges, both public health-related and economic, in many parts of the world. Not least in the UK, where a highly infectious new mutant strain (called 'VUI – 202012/01') has been identified and where vaccination efforts and national healthcare have been strained to capacity. The first week of 2021, then, has been a sober reminder that the fight against this lethal pathogen is still not over.  

Beyond its very immediate impact on global public health and the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic – and its concomitant preventative measures – have had major ramifications for the well-being of many worldwide and across all sectors of society. These include anxiety about the health of oneself, a relative or a friend; financial concerns and feelings of economic uncertainty; excessive loneliness and the negative effects of decreased physical and social activity.

But given that older adults are among those most at risk of severe health complications and social isolation, how and in what ways have the events of this year affected this particularly vulnerable demographic?

A team of researchers at University College London, UK, recently explored how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of older adults across Britain. The aim of the study, note the researchers, “was to explore factors that threatened and protected the well-being of older adults living in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The team released their findings in December 2020 on the preprint medRxiv* server.

Background

Because they are more prone to severe or critical disease, early on in the pandemic, older adults in the UK were asked by the government to isolate for three months. The researchers note, however, that the effects this may have had on this group are as yet unclear.

As the UK government has once again asked this group to re-enter a period of shielding as of January 5 2021, this study's findings may help inform well-being support measures for this vulnerable group.

The study

The study comprised 20 participants, all over the age of 70; 9 were women and 11 men, 80% identified as White British, and 40% lived alone.

The researchers undertook a qualitative study that employed “semi-structured interviews” to probe how the virus’s outbreak and subsequent pandemic measures affected this group.

The study’s findings

Findings from the interview transcripts were developed using thematic analysis to identify superordinate themes among the participants’ testimonies.

Overall, the team developed two major findings. The first being the perceived threats to participants' well-being, including “mortality concerns, grief and loss of normal life, restricted health service access, COVID-19 concerns, and restricted access to activities that protect well-being.”

The second major theme discerned by the researchers related to factors protective of well-being, including “slower pace of life, maintaining routine, socialising, and use of past coping skills.”

The researchers thus highlight a complex interplay between these two outcomes for older adults. They suggest that while this group has been negatively affected by their high-risk status, many of the participants were able to draw “on their resilience and life experience to self-manage fear and uncertainty associated with the pandemic.”

The researchers also observed that participants exhibited a productive ability to utilize their time during lockdown “to reflect [on] or organise end-of-life affairs.”

Conclusion

The researchers believe their study “provides evidence that while older adults experienced challenges, many were resilient against COVID-19 restrictions despite early concerns of mental health consequences."

Our findings highlight the importance of maintaining access to essentials to promote feelings of normality and social support to help reduce uncertainty in times of pandemics.”

While purposive sampling methods were used to increase diversity within the group, the sample size was still small and ethnically undiverse. Nevertheless, the study highlights some broad themes relating to older adults' experiences in Britain of isolation measures and pandemic-related health concerns. More study in the area may shed light on the granularity of experience in this age group across gender, geography, ethnicity, marital status as well as other factors like personal pandemic experiences.

As the UK enters another lockdown, to mitigate the unprecedented burden placed on the NHS amid a resurgence of critical cases, these findings could prove especially valuable in ensuring support is in place for this compromised group of society. Particularly so as they head once again into a period of social isolation and shielding.  

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Source:
Journal reference:
Dan Hutchins

Written by

Dan Hutchins

Dan graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a BA in History and Politics and the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History. He has a professional background in scholarly and non-fiction publishing, working in editorial both on the history list at Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and within the major reference division at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.  He has wide interdisciplinary interests, particularly where the humanities and the natural sciences intersect, but is above all exercised by the human capacity to construct and tell stories out of a complex world – and this is exactly what brings him to AzoNetwork. In his spare time, Dan is an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction, a keen walker and a hobbyist screenwriter.

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