PUMPING IRONY: What, Me Worry?

Recent research suggests that guys my age and older need to ramp up our anxiety about the pandemic even though we’ve long been told that a carefree approach to life is what keeps us healthy.

A few masks sit alongside a pump bottle of soap.

I like to think of myself as a generally carefree kind of guy, but the results of a new study have me worrying that I’m not worrying enough about dying from COVID-19.

A team of researchers at Georgia State University surveyed more than 300 people during the early days of the pandemic and found that the old guys among the group were much less concerned than other study participants about taking evasive action. The results left lead study author Sarah Barber, PhD, wondering whether mountains of research extolling the healthy benefits of a devil-may-care attitude may be irrelevant when geezers are confronted with a highly contagious and deadly virus.

“In normal circumstances, not worrying as much is a good thing,” Barber admits in a statement released by the university. “Everyday life is probably happier if we worry less. However, where COVID-19 is concerned, we expected that lower amounts of worry would translate into fewer protective COVID-19 behavior changes.”

Researchers asked participants to describe their various levels of anxiety about contracting and dying from the virus, worrying that family members would fall victim to it, as well as stressing about lifestyle changes, overwhelmed hospitals, a collapsed economy, and empty store shelves. Most reported at least a moderate concern about the potential effects of the pandemic, and the majority had already shifted their behavior: Eighty percent of those surveyed said they were washing their hands more frequently, eschewing physical contact, and sheltering in place; 60 percent reported they no longer socialized with friends.

Older men, however, expressed less anxiety about the virus and were less likely to don a mask in public, avoid touching their face, or hoard groceries. Barber doesn’t necessarily chalk this up to a stress-free approach to life, though. The survey took place less than three weeks after public-health officials declared the pandemic. “We all hope that a more accurate perception of risk has evolved over the last two months,” she says.

There’s a pretty thin line, I suppose, between burdening yourself with worry and simply taking reasonable precautions. It became pretty clear to this geezer early on that COVID-19 was no ordinary flu, so I had no complaints when the first shelter-in-place orders arrived. My Lovely Wife and I gladly accepted regular visits from our grandson, but we canceled all our summer travel plans and pretty much confined ourselves to quarters. I wasn’t an early adopter of the facemask, but I wear one now whenever I’m forced by necessity to enter a store.

And, while I’m hardly sanguine about the worldwide havoc the pandemic has produced, I can’t honestly say that I’ve lost any sleep over its devastation. Family and friends have so far managed to escape its clutches; the tragedies so prevalent behind the daily headlines have not yet become personal. All I can do is try to meet each moment as it arrives, completely open to what it brings. After all, it’s not the conditions we encounter that cause suffering; it’s our response to them. Thich Nhat Hanh, writing in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, probably says it best: “Perfect health is just an idea. Learn to live in peace with whatever ailments you have.”

Barber acknowledges that guys my age tend to be pretty good at coping with uncertainty, partly because we’ve navigated amid rocky shoals plenty of times before. There’s nary a soul among the Medicare set who isn’t dealing with some sort of stubborn ailment, a fact which may help to explain the general tranquility they reported in her study. We are certainly vulnerable to COVID-19; we should take precautions. But there is very little in this life that we can control, and I find nothing quite so futile as worrying today about what may occur tomorrow.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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