Pandemic disrupting social networks that are key to older adults' well-being

Indiana University
14-May-2020 9:30 AM EDT, by Indiana University

Newswise — Having a strong social network of friends and family can have a positive impact on people’s emotional and physical well-being, particularly for those 65 and older. However, COVID-19 has forced people indoors to maintain social distancing and help stop the spread of the virus.

IU researchers are now studying how the pandemic has disrupted those social connections for older adults.

“There’s quite a lot of work now showing that the size and social support offered by older adults' personal social networks is hugely important for their physical, cognitive and mental well-being,” said Anne Krendl, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington. “The COVID-19 outbreak has caused major disruptions in older adults’ access to those networks. The question now is to understand the impact those disruptions have had on those networks.”

Krendl and her collaborators, including Brea Perry, professor of sociology at IU Bloomington, have been studying the personal social networks of elderly people and the effects those networks have not only on their physical and mental wellbeing, but also in preserving cognitive function.

Social cognitive skills are critical, Krendl said, to successfully navigate social relationships. However, as people age, their cognitive skills can become impaired, making that navigation more difficult. 

Krendl’s original study, which is ongoing, consists of 120 adults age 65 and older and includes questions about the individuals’ social networks (friends and family members they regularly interact with and rely on), their current depression and anxiety levels, physical activity levels, perceived stress and loneliness and their basic social cognitive skills (how well they remember faces, recognize emotions and understand what other people are thinking).

Krendl’s original study, which is ongoing, consists of 120 adults age 65 and older and includes questions about the individuals’ social networks (friends and family members they regularly interact with and rely on), their current depression and anxiety levels, physical activity levels, perceived stress and loneliness and their basic social cognitive skills (how well they remember faces, recognize emotions and understand what other people are thinking).

Early findings from that study found that older adults have relatively impaired social cognitive skills relative to young adults and also have smaller and more tightly knit networks compared to young adults. As the study progresses, Krendl’s team is working to gain a better understanding of how important personal social networks are to older people’s cognitive function.

She will now also look at how COVID-19 has affected older adults’ personal social networks, and, as a result, their physical and mental well-being. Interviews of study participants are currently being conducted over the phone by undergraduates working in Krendl’s lab.

“Research by my lab and others has found that as people age, maintaining high quality social interactions becomes increasingly important,” Krendl said. “However, the core social cognitive abilities that support making new social relationships (remembering faces, tune in to other people’s perspectives) are impaired over the lifespan. So, we are looking at both the networks in place and if having ‘better’ social cognitive skills may serve as a protective buffer both in minimizing disruptions to their networks, and, ultimately, on their well-being.”

Krendl and her team will use findings from the study to develop and test interventions that may facilitate how older adults develop and maintain social relationships. For example, the interventions could target improving the key social cognitive skills that help older adults build their social networks. 

Krendl also hopes her work will help older adults and their families better prioritize the social relationships that protect older adults’ overall well-being.

“Ultimately, we want to improve older adults’ quality of life,” Krendl said.




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