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The Older You Are, the Better You May Cope With Pandemic Stress

Two older adults wearing masks standing by their glass door.

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Key Takeaways

  • Researchers have found that older adults are coping with COVID-19 stress better than young adults, reporting less depression and anxiety.
  • However, older age was associated with greater concern about COVID-19, and a greater perceived likelihood of dying from the disease if contracted.
  • Being mindful and focusing on the present may help regulate your emotions during this time.

Almost a year after the initial outbreak, COVID-19 stress continues to impact the lives of millions of individuals across the country, leading to poor sleep, increased alcohol use, and sometimes even mental disorders.

But researchers from the University of Connecticut School of Nursing have found that older adults are coping with this stress better than young adults, reporting less depression and anxiety, while also experiencing greater concern about COVID-19 in general.

“This study comes out of a larger project in my lab, in which we have been tracking about 1,000 U.S. adults since late March 2020, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF),” one of the study’s authors, Natalie Shook, PhD, an associate professor of nursing at UConn, tells Verywell. “Our goal is to assess the impact of the pandemic on a variety of domains from psychological well-being to health behaviors to social attitudes.”

Participants of the study, who ranged in age from 18 to 85 years old, completed an online survey from March 30 to April 5, 2020. The survey examined anxiety, depression, general concern about COVID-19, perceived likelihood of contracting COVID-19, social distancing, self-quarantining, current mood, health, and demographics. The December study was published in the journal Aging & Mental Health.

Researchers found those who stated they believed they were at risk for COVID-19 were more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. But this effect was moderated by age. At younger ages (18–49 years), a greater perceived likelihood of contracting COVID-19 led to more reported rates of anxiety, but the association was not found for adults of older ages (50 years and older).

These findings suggest that although greater stress has been reported overall during the pandemic, older adults may have a buffer against some of these negative feelings.

What This Means For You

Older adults may be better equipped to deal with the emotional stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. But focusing on the present moment, practicing mindfulness, and letting go of worries about the past or future may help you manage your emotions during this time.

Why Are Older Adults Coping Better?

The pandemic has put extra stressors across all generations. Though each person is likely to react differently to stress, research indicates that older adults may be better equipped to cope better with these stressors than young adults.

Researchers found that while older adults reported a general sense of concern about COVID-19, they had a lower perceived likelihood of contracting the disease themselves, despite being considered a high-risk group. "It is possible that older adults’ lower perceived likelihood of contracting COVID-19 may result as a function of avoidance, such that older adults may be choosing to focus on the positives of the current moment by eschewing negative thoughts about contracting COVID-19," the authors write.

“One potential explanation for this is that older adults may not necessarily perceive themselves to be in a high-risk group, despite them being so, and this might artificially deflate the perceived risk,” Myra Altman, PhD, vice president of clinical care at Modern Health, tells Verywell.

However, the risk of COVID-19 is not at all lost on older adults. Researchers found that older age was associated with greater concern about COVID-19, and a greater perceived likelihood of dying from the disease if contracted.

Researchers say this points to older adults having better coping mechanisms to deal with these stressors. "Older adults may have experienced more in their lives and be more practiced at coping and knowing that they will get through difficult times,” Altman says. “Or that they have a greater sense of accomplishment at what they have achieved and therefore are more likely to live in the moment and be less concerned with what the future may bring, including loss.”

Shook stresses the results don’t mean that older adults aren’t experiencing stress. “To be clear, this is not true of all older adults, just on average,” she says. “Older adults are still experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression.”

Altman further cautions against a one size fits all approach to mental health during the pandemic. “There is certainly no one size fits all understanding of the mental health impact of COVID-19,” she says. “Your reaction to it, and your ability to cope, can be influenced by myriad factors, including but not limited to whether you or someone close to you has been personally impacted by the pandemic, your social support, your financial situation, or your race/ethnicity given the significant disparities we are seeing.”

Strategies to Improve Mental Health

Experts suggest older adults may be better able to focus on the present, which in turn leads to improved mental health. A focus on today means that older adults are more likely to take one day at a time. This may help regulate negative emotional experiences.

Altman believes using these strategies can help younger people cope with stress during the pandemic. “A lot of distress comes from worrying about the past or the future, and so exercises like mindfulness that keep us grounded in what’s happening right now can be incredibly helpful," Altman says.

Both Altman and Shook stress the importance of being present-focused. “Mindfulness practices and being present-focused, rather than worrying about the future or ruminating about the past can be useful tools in managing stress and improving psychological well-being,” Shook says.

"When times are particularly stressful, this present focus allows us to practice what’s called 'radical acceptance,' or acknowledging that whatever is happening at this moment is happening and not trying to fight it,” Altman says. “For example, it’s the difference between being caught in the rain and thinking 'my day is ruined' or simply noticing 'it’s raining.' Radical acceptance frees us from some of the stress and worry and allows us to be in the present moment, without judgment. This then enables us to move forward with intention and think about the future in a more value-driven way.”

During this time, it's especially important not to compare your stress levels to those around you. Each of us experiences different struggles and levels of resilience—make sure to be kind to yourself.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Wilson J, Lee J, Shook N. COVID-19 worries and mental health: the moderating effect of ageAging Ment Health. 2020:1-8. doi:10.1080/13607863.2020.1856778