Brief, Telephone-Based Interventions From Trained Professionals May Prevent Loneliness in Isolated Older Adults

Study addresses the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of older people.

Loneliness in older people isolated during the pandemic can be reduced through the use of talking therapy delivered by trained support workers via telephone, according to the initial results of a study published in PLoS ONE. Participants were contacted once a week and encouraged to maintain their social contacts and a daily schedule that includes both routine and enjoyable activities.

“COVID-19 has unfortunately impacted on the mental health of older people,” said professor Carolyn Chew-Graham in a press release. “We know that social isolation can cause people to suffer from loneliness, low mood and anxiety. In this study, we tested how we can maintain older people’s mental health during this difficult time.”

Anticipating the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, the investigators designed a brief intervention to combat depression and loneliness. They found that there was an association between this intervention and improved mental health, as well as a strong indication that rates of loneliness are reduced substantially in the first 3 months of the study. The investigators also noted that study participants generally appreciated the offer of telephone contact and found the intervention to be helpful in maintaining daily routines and social contact.

“We have been researching in this area for the past 10 years, and we are ideally placed to help establish ‘what works’ in maintaining good mental health during the lockdown,” said David Ekers, PhD, MSc, in the release. “This represents a great alliance between the Universities and the NHS to address the major challenges posed by COVID. Even as restrictions are lifted, many people remain socially isolated.The results of our research program will be useful in the future in tackling the epidemic of loneliness.”

These early results have led to the development of a larger follow-up trial, currently recruiting at over 12 sites across England and Wales. The study is planned to include more than 600 individuals and will be the largest study ever undertaken to tackle loneliness and depression in this way, according to the investigators.

“We predicted increased rates of loneliness and depression for this vulnerable population, and we knew what might work to prevent this,” said Simon Gilbody, PhD, MSc, in the release. “Care in the NHS must be informed by the highest quality of evidence and we did not waste any time in deciding to set up a clinical trial to test this out. […] The first results of the pilot trial are now available, and there is now emerging evidence that it is possible to prevent loneliness and potentially improve mental health.”

REFERENCE

Ground-breaking trial prevents loneliness among older people during Covid pandemic [news release]. EurekAlert; October 12, 2021. Accessed October 13, 2021. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/931303