Dynamics of Loneliness Among Older Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Pilot Study of Ecological Momentary Assessment With Network Analysis

Front Digit Health. 2022 Feb 7;4:814179. doi: 10.3389/fdgth.2022.814179. eCollection 2022.


Objective: The COVID-19 pandemic has had potentially severe psychological implications for older adults, including those in retirement communities, due to restricted social interactions, but the day-to-day experience of loneliness has received limited study. We sought to investigate sequential association, if any, between loneliness, activity, and affect.

Methods: We used ecological momentary assessment (EMA) with dynamic network analysis to investigate the affective and behavioral concomitants of loneliness in 22 residents of an independent living sector of a continuing care retirement community (mean age 80.2; range 68-93 years).

Results: Participants completed mean 83.9% of EMA surveys (SD = 16.1%). EMA ratings of loneliness were moderately correlated with UCLA loneliness scale scores. Network models showed that loneliness was contemporaneously associated with negative affect (worried, anxious, restless, irritable). Negative (but not happy or positive) mood tended to be followed by loneliness and then by exercise or outdoor physical activity. Negative affect had significant and high inertia (stability).

Conclusions: The data suggest that EMA is feasible and acceptable to older adults. EMA-assessed loneliness was moderately associated with scale-assessed loneliness. Network models in these independent living older adults indicated strong links between negative affect and loneliness, but feelings of loneliness were followed by outdoor activity, suggesting adaptive behavior among relatively healthy adults.

Keywords: aging; causal networks; dynamic networks; loneliness; negative affect; positive affect; social isolation.