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27 Apr 2022 • 5 minute read

Study identifies crucial role of social networks in helping older people’s mental health during pandemic

A new study has shed light on the 20 per cent of older people who wanted mental health help during the pandemic, but chose not to access it due to technology barriers, health fears, and stoic resilience.

A new study has shed light on the 20 per cent of older people who wanted mental health help during the pandemic but chose not to access it due to technology barriers, health fears and stoic resilience.

Preliminary findings from a study conducted by a team of researchers at Edith Cowan University (ECU) revealed that social networks and community groups played an important role in supporting older adults’ wellbeing, suggesting that more needs to be done to provide alternative forms of support during health crises.

This sentiment was supported by a consumer reference group made up of eight older adults who worked in partnership with the researchers to design and conduct the research and interpret the results.

194 people who were aged over 70 years (or 60 years with a chronic condition) were surveyed, and 10 participants aged between 68 years and 78 years took part in in-depth interviews.

One of the researchers involved in the study, Dr Claire Adams, said because older adults were at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 they had experienced greater restrictions and isolation measures than younger people, which made them susceptible to loneliness and poor mental health outcomes.

“In general, we found older adults were resilient to the challenges COVID-19 presented. They relied on family, friends, and community groups and stayed connected through digital technologies to maintain their mental and social wellbeing during lockdown.

“However, some older people were unable or reluctant to use technology to connect, leaving them vulnerable to social isolation.”

Dr Adams said another finding was the important role that community played in maintaining social connectedness.

“This means that local councils and community groups have a key role to play in protecting older people’s wellbeing in times of crisis,” she said.

Participants described the importance of community groups, especially for older people with language barriers.

"For [my mother], she needed community members who spoke her language, who could go in and have a cup of coffee with her or say a prayer with her. That’s what she needed, and that would open up other doors for her. The formal helping services wouldn’t help her… the community, they’re the bridge. Without that community, they don’t trust… the community and the carer are very important.” (A01, female, married, 71 years old)

"I know that with [one local council] had a phone service where they [rang] up all the people who regularly went to activities that they ran and did a check in… I think that it makes people realise they’re not alone.” (A02, male, married, 69 years old)

“Once I was on that committee, and I joined [another committee] … And then you start networking. It’s part of that process that I started to learn how to manage things and get strategies on how I would cope…” (A04, male, widowed, 69 years old)

Barriers to accessing formal support

While many older adults adapted well to COVID-19 restrictions, Dr Adams said some people who wanted formal mental health support services found it difficult to access them.

“In our sample of 194 older adults, 24 per cent accessed professional help for their mental health, most commonly from their GP. 76 per cent did not access services for their mental health during lockdown, and 18 per cent wanted to access services but chose not to.

“Difficulty using technology, fear of catching COVID-19 and preferring to manage on their own were some of the obstacles older people faced when thinking about seeking formal mental health support.

“Marketing the benefits of telehealth services and making them more friendly and comfortable for older people to use may help to improve older adults access to services going forward,” Dr Adams said.

Participants described technology barriers.

“…We're on the internet, all got iPhones and whatever, [but] my mother isn't on the internet and my sister isn't on the internet. And so, that's a big issue for a lot of those people because most services, you've got to go online to access them, and they can’t.” (A05, male)

“If you can access it [digital and online technologies], it’s really good… [but] a lot of them can’t afford it on their own. They are reluctant to use it, because they’re scared of it… to a person who might not have even had a phone in the house when they were growing up, it’s scary.” (A07, female)

Group of older men playing dominos.
A new ECU study has shed light on older people's access to mental health services during the pandemic.

What older people want

Dr Adams said consistent COVID-19 cases around the country meant that many older Australians continued to self-isolate.

“Understanding what can be done now to improve service delivery for older adults is important to protect their wellbeing during the pandemic and potential future outbreaks.”

Participants in the study and the consumer reference group offered ways services could better meet their needs in the future, including:

  • Telephone ‘warm’ lines for older people to call and ‘have a chat’.
  • Better coordination of volunteers to provide care and support.
  • Hands-on training to set up technologies and improve digital literacy.
  • Clearer COVID-19 protocols to ease fears of catching COVID-19 and allow recreational groups to continue operating.

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

“Our research suggests more needs to be done to improve relationships within older adults’ local communities, which can potentially ease pressure on the healthcare system during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic recovery,” Dr Adams said.

ECU researchers involved in this study include Dr Claire Adams, Dr Eyal Gringart, Associate Professor Dan McAullay, Professor Moira Sim, Dr Amy Budrikis, Ms Brigitta Scarfe, and Dr Natalie Strobel.