Way back in March, when the pandemic’s initial surge first caught our attention, public-health experts sounded the alarm about its threat to the mental health of America’s elderly. More vulnerable to the virus than younger folks, the senior set was thought to be more at risk of emotional convulsions caused by disruptions in their social connections and healthcare access. Sheltering in place, they noted, would boost anxiety levels, trigger depression, and perhaps even spark an epidemic of suicides.
Turns out, my geezer cohort is a lot more resilient than anyone had imagined.
Yes, we’re dying at higher rates than anyone else, but recent research suggests that those of us who have thus far managed to avoid the lethal effects of the bug are for the most part navigating our emotional terrain more successfully than our younger peers. Writing last week in JAMA, a trio of physicians notes that “counter to expectation, older adults as a group may be more resilient to the anxiety, depression, and stress-related mental health disorders characteristic of younger populations during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The authors cite numerous studies, including an August CDC survey that highlighted the emotional toll the pandemic was exacting on pretty much everyone except the elderly. Participants aged 18 to 24, for example, reported high levels of anxiety disorder (49 percent), depressive disorder (52 percent), and trauma-or-stress-related disorder (46 percent). The prevalence of these conditions declined slightly among those between the ages of 25 and 44 (35, 32, and 36 percent) and more sharply among respondents 45 to 64 (16, 14, and 17 percent), before dwindling significantly in the Medicare set (6, 6, and 9 percent).
Surveys can be deceiving, of course, and the authors note that the CDC poll did not include residents of assisted-living facilities and nursing homes, nor did it interview people suffering from dementia or their elderly caregivers. Underrepresented minorities and low-income households, they add, also presented a less-rosy picture.
“Despite these caveats, the early findings suggest higher resilience to the mental health effects of COVID-19 at least in a proportion of community-dwelling older adults,” they conclude. “This resilience may reflect an interaction among internal factors (e.g., biological stress response, cognitive capacity, personality traits, physical health) and external resources (e.g., social status, financial stability).”
I recall a conversation with a colleague of mine back in April, as our company was contemplating widespread layoffs. “It’s not like we haven’t been broke before,” I told her. She concurred, but when the axe fell, it was her, not me, who suffered the consequences. I like to think of myself as a guy who rolls pretty well with life’s punches, but I can’t really say how effectively I’d be tamping down the stress right now if I wasn’t lucky enough to be gainfully employed and working from home.
My younger coworkers would also call themselves fortunate, though I can sense how stressful their lives have become since the pandemic struck. Unlike this geezer, they left behind a vibrant social life, ambitious travel plans, career-building conferences, and probably a few dreams I’d abandoned decades ago. And those who are trying to raise kids amid the uncertainties of school schedules and childcare options seem especially on edge these days. By comparison, our empty nest has seldom felt more soothing than it does now.
Because it’s so clear to me that it’s conditions and coincidence more than any inner calm that has so far spared me from the emotional challenges so prevalent among my younger peers, I’m not really ready to buy into the notion that geezers like me operate on some higher plane of consciousness. Yes, I’m avoiding crowds, donning a mask in public places, and generally staying put. My social circle, never particularly wide, has narrowed, but as the JAMA authors recommend, I’m prioritizing my closest friends and family, focusing on quality rather than quantity.
Still, I find myself stopping short when they suggest it’s some sort of acquired geezer wisdom that has allowed us to remain calm and collected through our pandemic-imposed confinement. We are, they contend, more empathetic and compassionate, more reflective and spiritual than younger folks. And this has kept us from panicking.
“Several recent studies involving various groups of people across the adult lifespan have shown a significant inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom,” they write. “The component of wisdom that is correlated most strongly (and inversely) with loneliness is compassion. Other data also suggest that enhancing compassion may reduce loneliness and promote greater well-being.”
It’s hard to argue against the value of cultivating more compassion for humanity, but I’ve found that crafting a little more self-compassion — acknowledging my limitations, accepting my current situation — can keep even a fool like me on an even keel.
And it doesn’t hurt to remind myself every so often of the impermanence of, well, everything. On the bulletin board above my desk, a quote from mindfulness coach Daron Larson says it best: “Your strategy for living in the present will go a lot better when you accept how frequently the present sucks.”