Older adults were able to adapt well to COVID-19 restrictions by relying on their social networks, a preliminary study has found.

Dr Claire Adams

Initial findings from a study conducted by researchers at Edith Cowan University reveal that social networks and community groups play an important role in supporting older adults’ wellbeing.

As part of the research, 10 older adults aged between 68 to 78 were interviewed between December 2020 and January 2021.

Dr Claire Adams, one of the researchers, said older adults were resilient to the challenges of the pandemic.

“In times of increased isolation, older adults really rely on their social networks for support,” she told Community Care Review.

“We found that, in general, older adults were able to adapt really well to COVID restrictions and they relied on their friends and their family and their local community for support.”

“In times of increased isolation, older adults really rely on their social networks for support.” – Dr Claire Adams

Less reliant on formal services

This reliance on social networks meant older people were relying less on formal services, the study suggests.

“We expected more older people to access formal services, such as social care services and mental health professionals,” Dr Adams said.

“We were surprised that there was 76 per cent of our sample who didn’t access any professional help for their mental health and that there really was this reliance on social networks.

“And this does support the evidence to some degree that older adults prefer to seek the support of family and friends rather than mental health professionals.”

Checking in

These findings also highlight the need for others in the community to check in on older adults who don’t have wide social networks, Dr Adams said.

“During the pandemic and also in the recovery of the pandemic, there are people in the community that are struggling and haven’t had that social connection and may be feeling isolated.

“Older adults prefer to seek the support of family and friends rather than mental health professionals.” – Dr Claire Adams

“If people are feeling isolated, this can lead to things like anxiety and depression in the future.

“So, to prevent that from happening, if we’re working with older people, it’s really important just to engage them in conversation and just to just to check in with them.”

‘Warm lines’

There’s an opportunity for local government and community groups to promote social connectedness, Dr Adams says.

One of the suggestions by participants from the study was to establish telephone ‘warm’ lines within the local community for older people to call and ‘have a chat’.

“They recommended a ‘warm’ line for older adults if they’re just feeling a bit lonely and want someone to talk to them,” Dr Adams says.

“This would really just be almost like meeting someone for a coffee, you’re socialising, you’re talking and it’s just to keep those connections going.

“We all need to share how we’re feeling and we all need to talk about our lives, and connection is important for everyone for our wellbeing.”

The participants want these ‘warm’ lines to be set up by their local communities, “so they feel that there’s someone that is close to them in their community that they’re talking to,” she said.

Other recommendations included better coordination of volunteers to provide care and support, hands-on training to improve digital literacy and clearer COVID-19 protocols.

More support needed for community groups

The researchers are calling for more funding for smaller organisations, such as local councils and community groups.

“There’s more funding that’s needed to support all these new initiatives,” Dr Adams said.

“Funding for community organisations to help support these new initiatives is important and this can potentially then ease pressure on the healthcare system during COVID and post COVID.”

The researchers are currently developing materials for service providers and older adults to inform them of the needs of older adults and are finding ways to promote help-seeking in the community.

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