UBC Faculty Research and Publications

COVID-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Well-Being Among Older Adults in the US and the UK Hu, Yang; Qian, Yue Tan

Abstract

Interacting with family members and friends from other households is a key part of everyday life and is crucial to people’s mental well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic severely curtailed face-to-face contact between households, particularly for older adults (aged 60 and above), due to their high risk of developing severe illness if infected by COVID-19. In-person contact, where possible, was largely replaced by virtual interaction during the pandemic. This article examines how inter-household contact in face-to-face and virtual forms, as well as combinations of the two forms of contact, related to older adults’ mental well-being during the pandemic. Data from two national longitudinal surveys, collected from the same respondents before (2018–2019) and during (June 2020) the pandemic, were comparatively analysed: the Health and Retirement Study in the US and Understanding Society in the UK. The findings showed a notable increase in loneliness in the US and a decline in general mental well-being in the UK following the outbreak of COVID-19. In both countries, more frequent inter-household face-to-face contact during the pandemic was associated with better general mental wellbeing, but inter-household virtual contact, via means such as telephone and digital media, was not associated with general mental well-being in either the US or the UK. In the US, older adults who engaged more frequently in virtual contact were more likely to feel lonely during the pandemic, particularly if their face-to-face contact was limited. In both countries, the increase in loneliness following the outbreak of the pandemic was greater for older adults who reported more virtual contact. The findings suggest that household-centred crisis management during the COVID-19 pandemic had unintended mental health implications in both the US and the UK, despite contextual differences between the two countries. Although face-to-face contact between households helped to sustain older adults’ mental well-being, virtual contact was not a qualitatively equivalent alternative. The findings also provide an important evidence base for informing policy developments and for supporting the mental health of older people during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the longer term.

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