Lifetime Experiences Help Older Adults Build Resilience to Pandemic Trauma

Older adults are especially vulnerable physically during the coronavirus pandemic. But they’re also notably resilient psychologically, calling upon a lifetime of experience and perspective to help them through difficult times.

New research calls attention to this little-remarked-upon resilience as well as significant challenges for older adults as the pandemic stretches on. It shows that many seniors have changed behaviors — reaching out to family and friends, pursuing hobbies, exercising, participating in faith communities — as they strive to stay safe from the coronavirus.

“There are some older adults who are doing quite well during the pandemic and have actually expanded their social networks and activities,” said Brian Carpenter, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “But you don’t hear about them because the pandemic narrative reinforces stereotypes of older adults as frail, disabled and dependent.”

Whether those coping strategies will prove effective as the pandemic lingers, however, is an open question.

“In other circumstances — hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, terrorist attacks — older adults have been shown to have a lot of resilience to trauma,” said Sarah Lowe, an assistant professor at Yale University School of Public Health who studies the mental health effects of traumatic events.

“But COVID-19 is distinctive from other disasters because of its constellation of stressors, geographic spread and protracted duration,” she continued. “And older adults are now cut off from many of the social and psychological resources that enable resilience because of their heightened risk.”

The most salient risk is of severe illness and death: 80% of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in people 65 and older.

Here are notable findings from a new wave of research documenting the early experiences of older adults during the pandemic:

Changing behaviors. Older adults have listened to public health authorities and taken steps to minimize the risk of being infected with COVID-19, according to a new study in The Gerontologist.

Results come from a survey of 1,272 adults age 64 and older administered online between May 4 and May 17. More than 80% of the respondents lived in New Jersey, an early pandemic hot spot. Blacks and Hispanics — as well as seniors with lower incomes and in poor health — were underrepresented.

These seniors reported spending less face-to-face time with family and friends (95%), limiting trips to the grocery store (94%), canceling plans to attend a celebration (88%), saying no to out-of-town trips (88%), not going to funerals (72%), going to public places less often (72%) and canceling doctors’ appointments (69%).

Safeguarding well-being. In another new study published in The Gerontologist, Brenda Whitehead, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, addresses how older adults have adjusted to altered routines and physical distancing.

Her data comes from an online survey of 825 adults age 60 and older on March 22 and 23 — another sample weighted toward whites and people with higher incomes.

Instead of inquiring about “coping” — a term that can carry negative connotations — Whitehead asked about sources of joy and comfort during the pandemic. Most commonly reported were connecting with family and friends (31.6%), interacting on digital platforms (video chats, emails, social media, texts — 22%), engaging in hobbies (19%), being with pets (19%), spending time with spouses or partners (15%) and relying on faith (11.5%).

“In terms of how these findings relate to where we are now, I would argue these sources of joy and comfort, these coping resources, are even more important” as stress related to the pandemic persists, Whitehead said.

Maintaining meaningful connections with older adults remains crucial, she said. “Don’t assume that people are OK,” she advised families and friends. “Check in with them. Ask how they’re doing.”

Coping with stress. What are the most significant sources of stress that older adults are experiencing? In Whitehead’s survey, older adults most often mentioned dealing with mandated restrictions and the resulting confinement (13%), concern for others’ health and well-being (12%), feelings of loneliness and social isolation (12%), and uncertainty about the future of the pandemic and its impact (9%).

Keep in mind, older adults expressed these attitudes at the start of the pandemic. Answers might differ now. And the longer stress endures, the more likely it is to adversely affect both physical and mental health.

Managing distress. The COVID-19 Coping Study, a research effort by a team at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, offers an early look at the pandemic’s psychological impact.

Results come from an online survey of 6,938 adults age 55 and older in April and May. Researchers are following up with 4,211 respondents monthly to track changes in older adults’ responses to the pandemic over a year.

Among the key findings published to date: 64% of older adults said they were extremely or moderately worried about the pandemic. Thirty-two percent reported symptoms of depression, while 29% reported serious anxiety.

Notably, these types of distress were about twice as common among 55- to 64-year-olds as among those 75 and older. This is consistent with research showing that people become better able to regulate their emotions and manage stress as they advance through later life.

On the positive side, older adults are responding by getting exercise, going outside, altering routines, practicing self-care, and adjusting attitudes via meditation and mindfulness, among other practices, the study found.

“It’s important to focus on the things we can control and recognize that we do still have agency to change things,” said Lindsay Kobayashi, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Addressing loneliness. The growing burden of social isolation and loneliness in the older population is dramatically evident in new results from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging, with 2,074 respondents from 50 to 80 years old. (It found that, in June, twice as many older adults (56%) felt isolated from other people as in October 2018 (27%).

Although most reported using social media (70%) and video chats (57%) to stay connected with family and friends during the pandemic, they indicated this didn’t alleviate feelings of isolation.

“What I take from this is it’s important to find ways for older adults to interact face to face with other people in safe ways,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan. “Back in March, April and May, Zoom family time was great. But you can’t live in that virtual universe forever.”

“A lot of well-intentioned families are staying away from their parents because they don’t want to expose them to risk,” Malani continued. “But we’re at a point where risks can be mitigated, with careful planning. Masks help a lot. Social distancing is essential. Getting tested can be useful.”

Malani practices what she preaches: Each weekend, she and her husband take their children to see her elderly in-laws or parents. Both couples live less than an hour away.

“We do it carefully — outdoors, physically distant, no hugs,” Malani said. “But I make a point to visit with them because the harms of isolation are just too high.”

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