LOCKDOWN has acted as a catalyst for many older people to embrace technology and reconnect with friends, according to Stirling researchers.

A study of people over the age of 60, led by the University of Stirling's Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, has found that many had adapted to video conferencing technology to increase online contact while Covid-19 restricted normal life.

Participants reported that lockdown had led them to engage with neighbours and other members of their communities for the first time, while several said social distancing had brought an additional meaning to life, by highlighting what was important to them.

Anna Whittaker, professor of behavioural medicine, led the study.

She said: “Our research found that the Covid-19 lockdown triggered feelings of loneliness in older people – with many experiencing less social contact and support.

“However, the study also highlighted positive outcomes, for example, lockdown encouraged some older people to embrace and engage with technology – such as Zoom, Whatsapp or FaceTime – to stay in touch with loved-ones or participate in exercise classes or religious groups.

“Those who engaged in such activity were able to prevent high levels of loneliness, therefore, helping older adults to increase their digital literacy and use of remote social interactions could be a really important tool for addressing loneliness.

“Participants also reported actively looking for new social contact while restrictions were in place – such as contacting friends who they had not spoken to in years and increasing interactions with neighbours and other members of their communities.

“Significantly, many of our participants reported that social distancing has actually led them to find new sources of satisfaction in life.”

The study, which involved a survey conducted between May and July in 2020 – sought to examine the impact of social distancing during the pandemic on loneliness, wellbeing and social activity, including social support, in Scottish older adults.

Professor Whittaker added: “Our study also highlighted that encouraging safe social contact through physical activity and engaging with people in the community may be an effective way to reduce loneliness, improve wellbeing, increase social activity, and improve social support.

“Our research underlines the importance of addressing loneliness and social support in older adults – but particularly during situations where risk of isolation is high.

“Although specific to the pandemic, this study has wider implications of helping us to understand the impact of social distancing and social isolation on older people.

“The findings may be applicable in the future – both in and outwith pandemic situations.

“In Scotland, the recommendations for improvement may be through encouraging older adults to get to know their neighbours better, getting involved with local buddying systems and community initiatives, including via digital means, and engaging in physical activity, such as daily walks in the community.”

Professor Whittaker was supported in the research by Stirling colleagues: Dr Simone Tomaz, Dr Pete Coffee, Dr Gemma Ryde, Bridgitte Swales, Dr Kacey Neely, Dr Jenni Connelly, Dr Andrew Kirkland, Dr Louise McCabe, Dr Karen Watchman, Dr Federico Andreis, Jack Martin, and Ilaria Pina.

Brian Sloan, chief executive at Age Scotland, explained the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of digital inclusion.

He said: “While it may prove difficult to consider any aspect of the pandemic positive as such, it is important and worthwhile to reflect on what it has taught us, both about ourselves and society and about the necessary tools to tackle Scotland’s increased levels of loneliness and isolation.

“For example, we’ve seen first-hand how important the community response has been in terms of supporting older people throughout lockdown and it has been inspiring to witness how people across the country stepped in and stepped forward to help those in need around them. Even as restrictions ease, we hope to see this sense of community spirit continue.

“The ongoing impact of Covid-19 has also demonstrated just how important increased digital inclusion is and how easily those without access to technology can feel out of the loop.

“It’s reassuring to see so many older people reporting that they have been able to embrace and engage with technology to stay connected and active.

“However, it’s equally important to ensure those who are unable or do not wish to use the internet have alternative ways to stay connected to their communities and support networks.

“As we take steps towards recovery together, it is vital that no one is left behind and those most impacted are supported to play a full part in society again.”