Despite being the most at-risk group, older adults seem to be handling the mental stress caused by the pandemic much better than everyone’s else.
Older adults report lower levels of depression and anxiety caused by the pandemic, as well as feeling ‘less concerned’ about it than the overall population average, according to the findings of several studies. This is particularly surprising given that they’re the most at-risk group, and that their self-reported levels of concern regarding the coronavirus are overall higher than average.
Exactly why this happens isn’t clear, but it may come down to that personal touch: the authors suspect that old age and its trappings may help make individuals more resilient to, or insulate them from, stress and its negative effects.
Tough as old boots
“When you think about older adulthood, oftentimes, there are downsides. For example, with regard to physical well-being, we don’t recover as well from injury or illness as we get older,” says Natalie J. Shook, a social psychologist, associate professor, and principal investigator for one of the studies.
“But, on average, older adults tend to have better emotional well-being than younger adults. They tend to report a more positive mood, are happier and more satisfied with life. And so we wanted to look at this question, with regard to COVID, because we know older adults are much more likely to have serious complications.”
The findings suggest that although everybody has been feeling more stress during the pandemic, older individuals are handling it better. The findings seem somewhat counterintuitive, but the team — researchers at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing — says they align well with previous research showing we get better at handling our emotions or stress as we age.
Shook and her team report finding a strong, positive association between an individual’s level of risk or likelihood of contracting COVID-19 and feelings of anxiety or stress. However, and this is key, that relationship was only seen in participants up to 49 years old, another paper reports, and wasn’t observed in older participants. This is despite the fact that older age is related to greater concern about COVID-19 and a greater perceived mortality risk.
“What we see within our data is that there seems to be kind of this age buffering where, despite greater concerns about COVID and rightly so, our older adults are not reporting higher rates of anxiety or depression than younger adults,” Shook says.
“The data suggest that older adults are better able to regulate their emotions and better able to cope with all of the stress and uncertainty right now.”
As for why this happens, we’re not sure. It may simply be the fact that older individuals have had more time to learn how to manage their stress and emotions, so they can handle it better despite knowing the risks involved. This isn’t to mean that our older acquaintances, friends, or relatives don’t need you to check in on them sometimes — they do.
Still, the findings also suggest that we can all learn how to better handle stress or emotions from our seniors, not only on a personal level, but also academically. If we can understand what lends them their resilience, we could weave these insights into relaxation or mindfulness exercises (or whatever other strategies or approaches they’re suited to) to help us all gain some clarity and calm in our lives.
On the other hand, there’s also a nugget of worry to be had in these results. Past research has shown that a higher perceived risk from a threat, such as a COVID-19 infection, makes us take it more seriously and engage in preventive behaviors. In other words, if older adults perceive a lower risk, they may be less willing to follow safety guidelines or be less strict in following these, essentially putting themselves at needless risk.
“[I]t is important to emphasize to the public how highly contagious COVID-19 is, particularly highlighting that those of older ages are more vulnerable to contracting the disease,” the authors explain.
These findings should be taken as part of a broader context. We probably all have some members of our family that we’ve been particularly worried about this past year. Just because they may seem to be handling it well and not worry doesn’t mean there isn’t any risk. We all should make an effort to check in on the older adults in our life. There are also options for seniors who, for one reason or another, don’t have people checking in on them.
The first paper “Older Adults and the Mental Health Effects of COVID-19” has been published in the journal JAMA Network.
The second paper “COVID-19 worries and mental health: the moderating effect of age” has been published in the journal Aging & Mental Health.