Mental health in the pandemic: older adults show better resilience

When it comes to the ongoing pandemic, we’re taking more than just a one-two punch. As if it weren’t sufficiently bad with the people that get killed by the virus and those that suffer long-lasting damage, our economy is also bruised and battered. The cherry on top of this entire mess is our mental health: last on the priority list, as we are forced to deal with all these problems while social distancing.

At first glance, the mental challenges seem obvious. Faced with adversity and uncertainty, strongly pushed towards social isolation, mental health problems are expected to surge.

However, at least some of those problems might be exaggerated, a new study suggests.

“Our findings provide new evidence that older adults are emotionally resilient despite public discourse often portraying their vulnerability. We also found that younger adults are at greater risk for loneliness and psychological distress during the pandemic,” says Patrick Klaiber, the study’s lead author and a graduate student in the UBC department of psychology.

Klaiber and colleagues analyzed data from 776 participants from Canada and the US, ages 18-91. The participants complete daily surveys about their level of stress and emotional well-being during the first weeks of the pandemic. This period was chosen as it was believed to be the period of largest disruption and uncertainty — the whole situation was new, and local and national authorities began issuing restrictions.

The difference in stress levels varied inversely with age. Younger age predicted more concerns about the threat of COVID-19, while older adults showed better emotional well-being and less reactivity to stressors, despite being exposed to similar stressors.

The reason may very well be practical: younger adults might have more on their plate family- and work-wise.

“Younger and middle-aged adults are faced with family- and work-related challenges, such as working from home, homeschooling children and unemployment,” Klaiber adds. “They are also more likely to experience different types of ongoing non-pandemic stressors than older adults, such as interpersonal conflicts.”

In this sense, it is perhaps understandable — but then again older adults are also faced with the extra pressure of higher rates of disease contraction and more severe impacts. Klaiber believes that they also possess more coping skills and life experience that serves to balance the extra risks.

Remarkably, older adults have adapted to the situation remarkably well, experiencing more daily positive events (such as remote social interactions) in 75% of the daily surveys, which helped keep their mood up.

“While positive events led to increases in positive emotions for all three age groups, younger adults had the least positive events but also benefited the most from them,” says Klaiber. “This is a good reminder for younger adults to create more opportunities for physically-distanced or remote positive experiences as a way of mitigating distress during the pandemic.”

The study has been published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

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