John Leland is young man, but he knows a few things about growing old. In 2015 the New York Times reporter began following the lives of six elderly New Yorkers to see what he could learn from them. By the time the novel coronavirus arrived in early 2020, five of them had died. Only Ruth Willig, 96, remained.
When Leland reached out to Willig in late March, she told him the virus had turned her assisted-living facility into a prison. “Two nights ago, they came to my door and told me I couldn’t go outside,” she said. “I don’t know what reason there is, or if anybody has it in the building. They don’t tell you anything. But we’re stuck here. They bring the food. It’s just awful.”
The pandemic, Leland recalls in the Times, had stolen Willig’s weekly visits from family, regular meals with friends in the building, holiday celebrations, and perhaps her last days of walking the halls without a walker. She began to wonder whether it was worth persevering. It was only when her oldest daughter explained that there wouldn’t be a funeral if she died that Willig seemed to snap out of her doldrums.
“That’s a terrible way to put it, but she’s right,” she tells Leland. “Meanwhile, I’m not dying. I guess it’s good. I laugh and I say I’m ready, but I’m really not.”
Willig got back to tending her plants, she read Michelle Obama’s memoir, then dove into Barack’s. The horizon brightened ever so slightly.
This is called “crisis competence,” says research scientist Mark Brennan-Ing, PhD, of Hunter College’s Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging. “As we get older, we get the sense that we’re going to be able to handle it, because we’ve been able to handle challenges in the past. You know you get past it. These things happen, but there’s an end to it, and there’s a life after that.”
As Washington University psychology professor Brian Carpenter, PhD, notes in Kaiser Health News, the elderly have in many cases defied expectations even as the virus has decimated their ranks. “There are some older adults who are doing quite well during the pandemic and have actually expanded their social networks and activities,” Carpenter notes. “But you don’t hear about them because the pandemic narrative reinforces stereotypes of older adults as frail, disabled, and dependent.”
KHN reporter Judith Graham cites a handful of recent studies showing how the senior set has managed to cope as well as it has with the psychological challenges the pandemic presents. Among the findings:
- Older folks take the virus seriously. A study published in The Gerontologist showed that the vast majority of respondents changed their behavior in response to public-health warnings, limiting their exposure by declining invitations to family gatherings and public events, reducing their shopping trips, and even canceling doctor appointments.
- We’ve discovered new sources of joy and comfort. A University of Michigan-Dearborn survey conducted among participants 60 years and older during the early weeks of the pandemic found that respondents were more resourceful than expected when faced with long periods of sequestration. About a third of those polled said they’d enjoyed connecting with friends and family via digital platforms, while about 20 percent reported leaning on hobbies, pets, spouses, and religious faith to ease their anxiety.
- The older you are, the less stress you feel. When researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research last spring asked nearly 7,000 people 55 and older how they were coping with the novel coronavirus, they found most (64 percent) were concerned. Almost a third of respondents (31 percent) noted depressive symptoms while 29 percent reported serious anxiety. But those numbers fell by about half among those 75 and older. This is not surprising, Graham notes, as earlier research has shown that we get better at regulating stress as we move into later life.
The day before she turned 97, Ruth Willig fell in her apartment and hit her head. She phoned her daughter while lying on the floor and met her later in the ER, where they spent four hours together — just not under the conditions they would’ve preferred.
She fell again in her apartment a few weeks later but took a different course of action. “This time I wasn’t going to tell anyone, because I didn’t want to go back to the hospital,” she tells Leland. “You should’ve seen how I managed to get up. I moved around on my behind, otherwise known as my tush. And I had black and blue marks all over my elbows, and I managed to get up without calling anyone. I’m a stubborn mule.”
Or maybe just resilient. Willig had often told Leland that she had no interest in joining the nation’s swelling ranks of centenarians, so he was surprised to hear from her daughter that Willig had changed her mind. And if she gets to 100, she’s going to want to have a party.