Elderly Australians and people living with chronic illness still limiting social interactions

Burnet Institute

21 May, 2021

Social mixing in Australia has increased as COVID-19 restrictions have eased, but older people and people living with chronic illness have continued to limit social interactions, new collaborative research led by Burnet Institute has found.

Key findings:

  • Daily social contacts have increased from five per day in October 2020 to 17 per day in March 2021
  • Most increases driven by younger people; participants aged 35-44 reported over 35 daily social contacts in March 2021
  • Participants aged 75 years and older reporting five daily social contacts in March 2021
  • Participants living with chronic disease reported 10 daily social contacts in March 2021; those living without chronic disease reported over 20 contacts
  • Strong positive correlation between positive mood and number of daily social contacts

The Optimise Study, a research partnership led by Burnet Institute and Doherty Institute has followed a group of over 400 participants from key groups since mid-2020.

The latest findings show the average number of social contacts has increased from five per day in October 2020 to 17 in March 2021. However, Burnet Senior Research Fellow, Dr Alisa Pedrana said these increases were driven by people aged between 25-44 years old.

“We’ve seen a hesitancy from key groups to mix in the community, who remain uneasy about contracting COVID-19,” Dr Pedrana said.

One older Optimise Study participant said they and their friends are more cautious than their children and grandchildren about social interaction.

“We’re pretty aware that our time is limited … so why would we want to cut it short or shorter than what we’ve got?” the participant said.

Dr Pedrana said this was understandable given these groups’ increased risk of developing serious COVID-19. However, she warned of potential mental health impacts of longer-term withdrawal from the community, given the study had found a positive correlation between number of contacts and positive mood.

“Participants felt that being vaccinated would improve their confidence to socialise.

“This emphasises the importance of everyone getting vaccinated – even with low levels of virus in Australia – for the benefit of people who have withdrawn from the community,” she said.

Dr Pedrana said more reliable sources of information around COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions would assist with vaccine uptake and improve mental health outcomes.

The study also found that young Australians have the most social contacts, yet they are the lowest priority for vaccination. A previous Optimise Study report also found young people have increased reluctance and experienced more social barriers to getting tested for COVID-19.

“This dichotomy around younger Australians is likely to remain for some time, given the priorities of the vaccination rollout. We have to keep up messaging, focusing on young people, about staying home and getting tested if unwell, physical distancing and hand washing,” Dr Pedrana said.

Download the full report

The Optimise Study:

A partnership between Burnet Institute and Doherty Institute in collaboration with University of Melbourne, Swinburne University of Technology, Monash University, La Trobe University, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the Centre for Ethnicity and Health, and the Health Issues Centre. The Optimise Study aims to better understand how the community is managing and responding to COVID-19 and the measures introduced to stop its spread. It assesses the level of community cooperation to government COVID-19 directions and measure’s the effectiveness of government restrictions while identifying unintended consequences of the restrictions.


Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Doctor Alisa Pedrana

Senior Research Fellow; Co-Head, Public Health; Co-Head, Implementation Science Group; Eliminate Hepatitis C Australia Coordinator




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