Social distancing and government-imposed lockdowns may help mitigate the spread and death rate from COVID-19 coronavirus. However, these same measures may be adding stress to the lives of a vulnerable population, older Americans. Many are finding new tools (some good, some not so good) to manage that stress.
If you ask older Americans what they think of COVID-19 coronavirus, you’re likely to get a shrug or a wave of the hand and told “not so tough.” Many of our older citizens are feeling the stress from this pandemic, along with the social distancing they are being made to endure.
Some of those folks are coping well. They’re using “new-fangled” communication tools they might never have thought of using previously, as well as venturing into the social media world much more than ever. Others are not faring as well, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.
Kerstin Emerson is the author of the study and a clinical professor of gerontology at Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology. Emerson is worried that social distancing may be creating feelings of loneliness for some older Americans and making them worse for others.
“Many of the social venues that help older adults stay engaged are effectively cut off now with social distancing. While the internet can help with some connections, it is hard to replace human contact,” said Emerson. “And for some these remote connections aren’t possible due to no reliable internet.”
People over 60 have been identified as a key “at-risk” group with regard to COVID-19. Without question, the largest percentage of serious, severe, critical and fatal cases of COVID-19 have come from this group.
Because many feared widespread transmission of the virus from young to old (among other reasons,) many American states issued stay-at-home orders to ensure adequate social distancing. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued recommendations on March 5 that told older Americans to stay at home and away from others in order to avoid COVID-19 exposure.
When this began, Emerson wanted to see how older Americans were doing on the mental and emotional health front. She chose to conduct a survey of older US adults to assess how they were doing and to possibly get some idea of how to help. Her survey included 833 American adults over 60 years of age, and was conducted between March 30 and April 12. At the time of the survey, the average length of self-quarantine for each participant was 17 days.
She broke her respondents into two age brackets to compare answers. The groups were those aged 60 to 70 and those aged 71 and older.
“Part of the reason I did that was because I wanted to see if there was a difference by age groups, among the ‘younger old’ and ‘older old,’ who may have different work responsibilities and living situations,” said Emerson.
The two age groups reported different experiences, impacts and coping mechanisms. In the 60- to 70-year old group, about 40 percent reported feeling moderately or very stressed about the COVID-19 situation and said they felt out of control of their lives.
Interestingly, this group reported more negative coping mechanisms and unhealthy behaviors. A third of them reported exercising less. Higher alcohol intake and eating more were also reported in this group.
For the older subgroup, the COVID-19 lockdowns seemed far less stressful. They compared this situation to past war times and other stressful events and said it was no worse. Fully 74 percent reported feeling little to no stress.
“That’s where older adults have a strength,” said Emerson. “They have life experience and coping mechanisms that we don’t often give them credit for, but that’s part of their wisdom. We can really turn to older adults as examples of how to manage and live through bad periods of history.”
Finding ways to stay connected was a priority for both groups. Two-thirds are on social media and using more smart phones and devices. More than half reported using video calls at least once a day. There was much more calling, texting, emailing and scrolling taking place in these groups than ever before.
Emerson believes this information is important for public health practitioners when developing ways to help support the physical well-being and mental and emotional health of older Americans remotely.
Since the survey respondents have access to the internet and a laptop, personal computer or smart phone or device, Emerson admitted there was a limitation in the study. “We’re probably not reaching the most vulnerable populations, people who are socially isolated in rural areas or who are incredibly poor.”
Emerson believes there is more to be explored in this area.
“The survey ends up raising more questions than giving answers in some cases, but that’s the nature of it.”
Many have criticized the government’s response to the virus, stating that universal lockdowns and stay-at-home orders wouldn’t have been necessary if we had addressed the safety and health of our most vulnerable populations, including older Americans and those with underlying medical conditions. Perhaps next time we’re faced with a novel pathogen, we’ll craft a different policy. Hopefully, this research and more like it will positively inform that policy.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
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Journal Reference – Kerstin Gerst Emerson. Coping with being cooped up: Social distancing during COVID-19 among 60+ in the United States. Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública, 2020; 44: 1 DOI: 10.26633/RPSP.2020.81