Longitudinal Perspectives on Successful Ageing
Professor Paulin Tay Straughan and Mr Micah Tan offered a research-driven look at the well-being of older adults and how COVID-19 has affected them.
We often hear that we have an ageing population. However — as Professor Paulin Tay Straughan, Professor of Sociology (Practice) and Director of the Centre for Research on Successful Ageing, School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University (SMU), and Research Associate Mr Micah Tan shared in the sixth instalment of the Healthy Ageing lecture series — this should not be perceived as a shortcoming. Rather, we should learn better ways to receive an ageing population, and take advantage of the wealth of experience that they offer. This means prolonging life meaningfully and ensuring a high quality of life in our later years.
In order to achieve this, high-quality, high-frequency longitudinal data is required to test hypotheses related to key issues concerning older adults, and to derive a holistic understanding of different domains of well-being and how they affect each other over time. The Centre for Research on Successful Ageing hosts the Singapore Life Panel, which gathers a large, population-representative sample of older adults in Singapore to participate in longitudinal surveys, providing insight into their lives.
Research was conducted into the well-being of older adults, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, during the pandemic in 2020. This examined their success in adjusting to various restrictions and the factors that have exacerbated COVID-19’s impact on older adult well-being, especially with regards to social isolation. In order to explore these issues, participants were asked to rate their satisfaction with life as a whole, how often they felt socially isolated, their household size, use of communication technology and participation in in-person social activities.
The results observed a sharp decrease in overall life satisfaction when Singapore’s lockdown began in April 2020, and the overall life satisfaction levels have yet to return to pre-COVID levels. On the other hand, satisfaction with health maintained and even improved slightly when the “circuit breaker” began. Follow-up questions in focus groups revealed that respondents felt more able to take care of their health during the “circuit breaker”. For instance, a couple of respondents with diabetes remarked that they used the extra time saved working from home to develop a daily exercise routine which led them to experience significant improvements in their health conditions.
In comparing those who lived alone with those living with others, those living alone reported lower levels of life satisfaction throughout the pandemic, but also a steeper decline in life satisfaction when the lockdown began. What’s more, the lockdown brought levels of life satisfaction for those living with others down to the level of life satisfaction experienced by those living alone pre-lockdown. To remedy this, policymakers should have targeted approaches towards encouraging greater participation in social activities among seniors, especially those living alone.
A deeper dive into social isolation among older adults showed that living alone was directly related to the level of social isolation a respondent feels, and that they tended to participate in more social activities to reduce their level of social isolation. However, they did not similarly engage in more digital contact with their friends. This may be due to the fact that older adults are generally less technologically-savvy, and may not have known to use digital contact as a substitute for in-person contact. While digital communication is an effective way to reduce social isolation, improving the digital skills of seniors is key to empowering them to stay connected.
Another case study explored COVID-19 vaccination trends among older adults in Singapore. While the vaccination rates increased quite sharply in the beginning, they started to increase at a slower rate as the months proceeded, indicating that there was a greater resistance towards being vaccinated among the remaining elderly. A common reason for this was that older adults remained firm in their fear of side effects, and they wanted to wait to see if there were reports of negative side effects.
Social support and family members play a crucial role by serving as trustworthy sources of information on COVID-19 among older adults, especially those who did not vaccinate. As such, older adults without this support were more likely to not be vaccinated. Public health campaigns should therefore be targeting these family members to encourage their older family members to get vaccinated, as the older adults were less likely to rely on government sources and newspapers. Meanwhile, the community will have to step in to support those living alone.
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