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Study: Texting, emailing help mood in older adults, not as good as in-person visits

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July 28 (UPI) — Older adults seeking to maintain social contact during the pandemic can use texting and email in the short-term, but it doesn’t effectively replace normal social interaction, a study presented Wednesday during the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Denver found.

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While these modes of communication help reduce loneliness and “blue” moods caused by social isolation, however, they do not provide the same level of connection as in-person contact, the researchers said.

During the pandemic, on average, older adults in the study spent 123 minutes per week engaged in in-person visits, down from the 282 minutes per week before COVID-19, the data showed.

Conversely, time spent on phone and video calls increased by about 25% during the pandemic, to 141 minutes per week from 113 pre-COVID-19.

Similarly, time spent communicating via text and email rose by about 30%, to 57 minutes per week from 44 pre-pandemic.

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“Older adults tend to be more socially isolated anyway,” study co-author Chao-Yi Wu told UPI in a phone interview.

“Texting and email can help reduce feelings of loneliness and depressed mood, [but] they are not enough to maintain their [levels of social activity] pre-COVID,” said Wu, a post-doctoral researcher at the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology in Portland.

In the early stages of the pandemic in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that older adults avoid contact with others as much as possible to limit their exposure to COVID-19.

In addition, although many nursing homes nationally restricted visitors to their facilities, dozens across the country saw large-scale outbreaks and significant fatalities.

For this study, Wu and her colleagues analyzed a total of 4,774 weeks of survey data — including 3,047 before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — for 146 adults ages 76 to 86 in the United States.

Participants were asked to estimate the amount of time they spent seeing friends and family in person versus communicating with them via email and text or phone and video chat, the researchers said.

After the start of the pandemic, time spent in in-person visits declined by nearly 60%, while time spent emailing and texting or communicating by phone and video chat increased.

During the pandemic, every one hour increase in time texting and emailing with friends per week was associated with a 32% reduction in “blueness” — or depressed mood — three or more days per week.

However, these modes of communication did not provide the same level of mood enhancement as in-person visits, the researchers said.

“We still saw a lot of depression in older adults in our study due to reduced in-person contact,” Wu said.

“This is a vulnerable population that tends to be isolated from technology — they may not know how to set up Zoom meetings — so while they may prefer text and email, during the pandemic, it may not be enough to uplift their mood, she said.

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