A sad elderly person sitting alone in bed.

A Troubling Pandemic Side Effect for Older Adults

The COVID-19 pandemic has put seniors at risk in many ways, including their mental health. Just how prevalent has depression been in this group?


The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a serious mental health toll on our country, and according to a new study, older adults are particularly at-risk. The study found that 1 in 8 older Canadians experienced depression for the first time during the pandemic, and nearly 50% of older Canadians with a previous history of depression reported feeling depressed again.

Andie MacNeil, a recent graduate from the University of Toronto‘s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Institute for Life Course and Aging, was first author of the study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Prior to the pandemic, depression was among the most common mental health challenges experienced by older adults in Canada. It likely won’t come as a surprise that the pandemic has only made this worse — especially since older adults continue to face the highest risks from COVID-19.

MacNeil and collaborators were interested in learning how the pandemic has affected the mental health of this vulnerable population, and whether it has led to new onsets of depression among older adults. To do this, they made use of data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, which has been surveying more than 20,000 older Canadians since 2011.

They found that approximately 1 out of every 8 older Canadians experienced depression for the first time during the pandemic. These were adults who had not previously reported being depressed in earlier years of the survey, but had experienced an onset of the mental illness starting in 2020.

“The high rate of first-onset depression in 2020 highlights the substantial mental health toll that the pandemic caused in a formerly mentally healthy group of older adults,” MacNeil said in a press release.

At the same time, older adults who had experienced depression in the past were much more likely to relapse during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the researchers found that 45% of older Canadians who had previously been depressed reported being depressed again by the fall of 2020.

There were a number of factors that led to this increase in depression among older adults during the pandemic. In addition to the high health risks of COVID-19, the researchers found that loneliness, family conflicts, and inadequate savings were all contributing factors to these high levels of depression.

As we head into winter in Canada, it’s important to remember this vulnerable population and do what we can to help out — especially given that the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing. This can be as simple as reaching out to the older adults in your life and making sure they aren’t lonely this winter season.

Recent studies have also found that virtual social events (such as arts workshops) aimed at older adults can help combat loneliness in this high-risk population. While many of us are excited about museums and theatres being open for in-person activities, it’s important that these spaces continue to offer virtual programming for anyone who can’t access in-person activities for any reason.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.