Fall 2022 Newsletter
By Dr. Jennifer Peszka, Professor, Psychology
Dr. Anne Goldberg, Professor, Sociology/Anthropology
and Dr. Pete Gess, Professor, Psychology
Previous research shows that loneliness is detrimental to healthy aging. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it led to early calls for strict limitations to in-person social interactions (lockdowns and social distancing). During Spring 2021, Hendrix College and AGEC conducted a telephone survey of nearly 867 older Arkansans to examine social connection and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those data indicated that during the early part of the pandemic, in person social interactions and satisfaction with social interactions declined. While not a completely satisfying replacement, supplementing lost in-person social interactions with technology facilitated communication did help buffer some of the negative impact on satisfaction for some participants. During Spring of 2022, we conducted a follow-up survey to replicate previous findings, look for changes as social interactions began to shift back to normal, and to add additional questions to probe further into findings seen in the original survey data.
About the participants
603 older Arkansans completed the automated telephone survey. 68.3% of the participants were between 65 and 74 years old, and 31.7% were 75 years old or older. 86.5% identified as White, non-Hispanic; 8.0% as Black; .2% as Hispanic; and 5.3% as other, preferred not to answer, or mixed. 65.9% identified as women, 33.2% as men, and 0.8% as preferred not to answer. To examine economic status, we asked them to indicate how often they worry about paying their monthly bills. 8.1% said always, 15.0% said frequently, 34.9% said seldom, and 42.0% said they never worry about paying their bills.
What they told us
Frequency of interactions: In the 2021 survey, 76% of participants reported curtailing their in-person social interactions since the pandemic began at least some, 41% were curtailing a lot. Now, when the virus is waning and vaccines are widely available, curtailment was not as widely spread with about one half reporting they were curtailing their in-person social activities at least some (50.4%) and substantially fewer were curtailing it by a lot or completely (27.6%) (See Figure 1). For in person activities, in 2021, only about one-third (31%) of the sample was engaging in in-person social activities multiple times a week, but in 2022, we saw that double (63%).
Social satisfaction: 93% of the participants rated themselves as satisfied with their social connection before the pandemic, that number reduced to 67% during the pandemic in 2021, and this has started to recover now in 2022 with 78% of the participants rating themselves as satisfied with their social connections now.
Social technology use: In 2022, we investigated a specific kind of social technology: the video chat. Video chatting was prevalent in this sample even before the pandemic, with about 40% of the sample engaging in video chatting multiple times a week before the pandemic began. About one-quarter of the participants (22.8%) reported using video chat even more during the pandemic.
In 2021, during the pandemic, 60% of the participants said they felt socially connected when engaging in online social interactions. In 2022, after an additional year of these sorts of interactions, it seems there has been a slight increase in satisfaction, with about 10% of participants being less likely to disagree with this and 10% being more likely to agree, with 70% of participants reporting feeling socially connected when engaging in these online interactions (See Figure 2).
Summary: In person social interactions and satisfaction with social interactions are still lower than during pre-pandemic times, but they are starting to recover. Nonetheless, some older Arkansans find themselves experiencing loneliness and isolation even when there is no pandemic. These findings suggest that with practice and motivation older Arkansans can increase their technological interactions and that these can serve as a reasonably satisfactory replacement to in person social interactions when necessary. We should work to develop programs to increase fluency and availability of social technology for older Arkansans.