Given the longstanding consensus that social contact can promote older adult well-being, many have focused on how social contact changed during the pandemic. Less is known, however, about whether the link between social contact and health changed during the pandemic. This study sought to understand how associations between social contact, social support, and depressive symptoms changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data from two waves of the Health and Retirement Study were used. Respondents reported both virtual and in-person social contact, as well as perceived positive and negative social support. I use path models to estimate relationships between social contact, social support, and depressive symptoms. Bootstrapping was used to estimate the change in associations between 2016 and 2020.
Estimates show that associations between positive social support and depressive symptoms, as well as between in-person social contact and depressive symptoms, attenuated during the pandemic. Virtual social contact played a relatively minor role in determining outcomes such as social support and depressive symptoms, compared to in-person social contact.
Findings suggest that researchers and policymakers should not only focus on the changing quantity of social interactions when events such as the COVID-19 pandemic happen, but also the changing content and efficacy of the social interactions that remain.