Can changes in social contact (frequency and mode) mitigate low mood before and during the COVID-19 pandemic? The I-CONECT project

J Am Geriatr Soc. 2022 Mar;70(3):669-676. doi: 10.1111/jgs.17607. Epub 2021 Dec 13.


Background/objectives: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) global outbreak allowed a natural experiment to observe how older adults changed social patterns and how it affected their emotional well-being. We studied the frequency and modes of social contact and their effects on older adults' mood before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Design: Phone-based surveys were administered weekly before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Setting: Participants were recruited from Portland, Oregon, and Detroit, Michigan.

Participants: Older adults ≥75 years old (n = 155, age = 81.0 ± 4.5, 72.3% women) were included in a randomized controlled trial, the Internet-Based Conversational Engagement Clinical Trial (I-CONECT).

Measurements: Low mood was self-reported as feeling downhearted or blue for three or more days in the past week. Social contact was self-reported by the amount of time spent in interactions, with whom (family, friends, others), and via which modes (in-person, phone/video call, text/email/letter).

Results: A total of 5525 weeks of data were derived from 155 participants. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, average social interaction time spent in-person, on phone/video call, and via text/email/letter was 406, 141, and 68 min/week, respectively. During the COVID-19 pandemic, time spent in-person was reduced by 135 min/week, while time spent via phone/video call and writing increased by 33 and 26 mins/week, respectively. In-person family contact was associated with less low mood regardless of the pandemic (odds ratio = 0.92, p < 0.05). There was a COVID-19 × text/email/letter with friends interaction (odds ratio = 0.77, p = 0.03), suggesting that during the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase of 1 h of writing with friends per week was associated with a 23% decrease in the likelihood of experiencing low mood.

Conclusion: The lost in-person time relating to COVID-19 restrictions tended to be partially compensated for with increased calls and writing time, although overall social interaction time decreased. During the COVID-19 pandemic, at least two types of social interactions (writing to friends and in-person family time) showed promise for mitigating low mood for older adults with limited social resources.

Keywords: resilience; social isolation; stress; virtual communication.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology
  • COVID-19 / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Michigan / epidemiology
  • Mood Disorders / epidemiology
  • Mood Disorders / psychology*
  • Oregon / epidemiology
  • Pandemics
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Social Isolation / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Telephone
  • Writing