After months under COVID-19 seniors are more lonely, less optimistic, new study says

A linguistic analysis from McMaster University shows seniors are becoming even lonelier during the COVID-19 pandemic.

'It took about five months after the lockdown for older people to exhaust their emotional reserve'

A linguistic analysis from McMaster University shows seniors are becoming even lonelier during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Shutterstock)

For seniors, the emotional gas tank is running low as feelings of loneliness, pessimism and social isolation are running high during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — and according to researchers at McMaster University, you can see it in their writing.

"It took about five months after the lockdown for older people to exhaust their emotional reserve," Victor Kuperman, an associate professor at the university, said about that latest findings from this summer.

"They were holding up OK … and after this time, we saw a big drop in their optimism."

He and his team performed a linguistic analysis of 3,408 written submissions from 959 seniors.

They opted for a linguistic analysis instead of a questionnaire because people generally don't want to admit they are lonely, Kuperman said.

"We thought we would ask older individuals to write a story about an event in the distant past, describe their day yesterday or speak to their future."

How does the linguistic analysis work?

Each submission gets a rating based on the words inside. Words are categorized as positive and less associated with loneliness or negative and more associated with loneliness.

"A word like 'ice cream' or 'victory' would be very positive whereas a word like 'disease' or 'war' would be very negative," Kuperman said.

The more words there are on the negative side, the higher loneliness rating assigned to the passage.

One passage, which Kuperman said was written by a 68-year-old woman who participated, shows how some older adults are feeling.

"I drank a cup of coffee and [realized] if they don't let us go back to work [I'm] just not sure how much longer I can do this. I finally realized that this was getting to me. I had spent my retirement on cancer treatment three times and now did not have a nest egg to fall back on. Ok I admit I am depressed."

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Based on the data, Kuperman said seniors were already lonely. Now, it's worse.

The analysis started a year-and-a-half ago with funding from the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging to get the project off the ground. 

When the pandemic hit, the team realized it could use the previous data as a baseline to see how COVID-19 would impact these feelings.

Kuperman said the team will share the data with other healthcare professionals for their use. He also said they are working on a diagnostic tool to help identify if there's a risk of someone becoming very lonely.

Long-term care homes have been problematic

Bill VanGorder, the chief policy officer of CARP, formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, said he has been hearing sad stories from older adults, their families and caregivers, "especially in long-term care homes" where COVID-19 has run rampant.

"We're hearing from families who said 'We weren't able to visit grandma for four-and-a-half months, we found she degenerated, not only in her physical health but her mental health and she was anxious and confused.'" said VanGorder.

"Authorities are making decision for older adults, not with them."

Hamilton has seen a number of outbreaks in long-term care homes, including Chartwell Willowgrove, which recently became the city's largest outbreak.

While some homes are dealing with stopping the virus, others are trying to keep the morale of residents up.

"This is an issue that's not going away quickly ... we really have to start thinking about these individuals who are being locked away from socialization, how do we appropriately, for each one of them, give them as much social interaction as we can?"

But there is a positive in the letters of loneliness, Kuperman said. Even if it wasn't expected.

"It got a new meaning. We never intended it to be so but it actually is therapeutic because for people who are lonely, it's important for them to share their experiences [and] to read the experience of others."