Older adults resilient in the face of COVID-19 pandemic despite isolation, study finds
An ongoing study suggests that older American adults are showing resilience and perseverance despite struggles with loneliness and isolation — that ‘there is survival.’
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began engulfing everyone’s lives, older people generally have been viewed as among those at higher risk in a coronavirus-saturated, increasingly isolated world.
But that’s just physical health. When it comes to mental and emotional health, older adults in the United States are showing resilience and are persevering despite struggles with loneliness and isolation, according to the latest results of an ongoing study.
The newest data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, conducted by the social research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, is part of a longer-term study designed to track the physical and emotional well-being of older Americans over time.
Only 9% of older adults reported having “fair or poor overall mental health” during the pandemic — similar to their previous answers and an indication of what the study calls “some signs of resilience.”
Still, the study found that general happiness has declined. About half as many older adults now report they are very happy or extremely happy, and an increasing number report occasional feelings of depression or isolation.
“It should sensitize everyone to the reality of isolation’s impact but also the reality that people are resilient — and maybe even more so older adults than younger adults,” said Louise Hawkley, the principal research scientist for NORC and the lead researcher on the study. “This isn’t their first show. They’ve been through things already. They know how to handle stress. This is something we can learn from them — that there is survival.”
The information comes from 1,284 respondents between the ages of 55 and 99, interviewed in September and October — all participants in a longer-term study that also collected data in person in 2015-2016. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Among the study’s other findings:
- About one-fifth of older adults said they’d had no in-person contact with family and friends outside their own households during the pandemic.
- At the same time, at least half of older adults “have not reduced their frequency of in-person contact with friends and family not living with them” since the pandemic began.
- Where in-person interaction faded, the study showed that electronic communication stepped in — but, perhaps unexpectedly in this demographic, the use of phone conversations (32%) lagged behind messaging (37%) and video calls (42%).
“There’s a lot we don’t appreciate about how well people do cope with age,” said Hawkley, who specializes in researching loneliness and social isolation among older adults.
She said arrangements are being made to obtain data regarding physical health from as soon as the pandemic ebbs.
“We’re learning painfully how real a risk social isolation is to our mental health,” she said. “And I think we need to learn how it affects physical health.”