Older Adults Have a Lot to Teach Us About Resilience in the Face of a Pandemic

COVID-19 has made this year particularly challenging for older adults, who have been at the highest risk for severe illness and mortality from the virus. Simultaneously, this cohort has had to endure the systemic complications associated with living through a pandemic. And, older adults have been stigmatized by negativity associated with “being old,” evidenced in mainstream and social media.

Greater medical complications and higher mortality rates, and the added stress of ageist attitudes, having to adapt to technology, difficulties accessing healthcare and vital services, being isolated from friends, loved ones and caregivers and sheltering at home has drastically impacted elders’ daily routines (i.e., attending congregate settings for socialization, shopping, etc.), making for a very challenging year.

Older Adults Demonstrating Higher Resilience

Despite all of this adversity, early research indicates older adults may be less negatively affected than other age groups. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2020) published survey results of U.S. community-dwelling adults, noting that participants ages 65 and older reported significantly lower percentages of anxiety disorders (6.2 percent), depressive disorders (5.8 percent) and trauma- or stress-related disorders (TSRDs; 9.2 percent) than did their younger counterparts.

According to this report, of people ages 18–24, 49.1 percent reported anxiety disorders; 52.3 percent depressive disorders; and 46 percent TSRDs. Of those ages 25–44, 35.3 percent reported anxiety disorders; 32.5 percent depressive disorders; and 36 percent TSRDs. For those ages 45–64, 16.1 percent reported anxiety disorders; 14.4 percent depressive disorders; and 17.2 percent TSRDs. Older adults, compared with other age groups, also reported lower rates of new or increased substance use and suicidal ideation in the preceding 30 days (3 percent and 2 percent, respectively).

Older adults reported significantly lower percentages of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and trauma- or stress-related disorder.

These findings suggest, at least for a portion of community-dwelling older adults, higher resilience to the adverse mental health effects of COVID-19. As a behavioral process, resilience means developing protective factors that modify the negative effects of living through something like this pandemic, allowing for a positive adaptation or a “bouncing back.” Longevity and histories of encountering adverse life events and stressors, from small to more consequential, may be at the core of what has helped many older adults build on and draw upon their individual resiliency.

Recent literature focusing on age differences in emotional experiences around facing COVID-19 indicated that being older was associated with relatively greater emotional well-being that persisted in the endurance of this prolonged stress. Psychological resources and life experiences serve as a reserve and the positive emotions developed over the course of one’s lifespan improve coping under the present circumstances.

Highly resilient older adults generally have a wide range of tools that they draw upon when encountering difficult life situations, including using active coping skills, minimizing their appraisal of the threat, creating positive statements, seeking support from others, practicing gratitude, reframing their perceptions and reactions to events while savoring the good to cultivate optimism, and accepting their feelings about the situation.

Conceptually, resiliency helps to restore balance when one is faced with stressors. As a personality and behavioral trait, resiliency functions as a protective factor, modifying the negative effects of living through trauma and this global pandemic.

Developing a positive emotional infrastructure leads to higher resilience and well-being. Positive emotions help older adults cope with negative thoughts and also allow for increased opportunity to find the good in present circumstances. The focus then is on a lifelong behavioral process where protective factors have been developed to modify negative events, utilizing active coping skills, support from others and allowing for adaptation and rebounding. Cultivating resilience is positively associated with improved life satisfaction, better health and longer life.

Positive Personality Traits

Two of Costa and McCrae’s personality traits that are positively associated with well-being in older adults, including “openness to experience” and “agreeableness” regarding how older adults engage and receive support from others  (i.e., learning to use technology to connect to and “see” friends and family) and how older adults express optimism and social skills. It is likely that highly resilient older adults demonstrate a strong emotional infrastructure developed through lived experiences in conjunction with an individual’s personality traits.

Older adults who were able to use technology (high- or low-tech) to maintain interpersonal connections and meaningful relationships during the pandemic experienced more resilience. These connections allowed elders to practice and engage in prosocial behaviors such as compassion and empathy. With pandemic-fueled uncertainty, connections to others, self-reflection and spiritual/religious wisdom helped to regulate emotions and navigate difficult terrain. These practices align with the development of post-traumatic growth and the related factors that help older adults psychologically cope with these unprecedented times.

‘Cultivating resilience is positively associated with improved life satisfaction, better health and longer life.’

Resilience is multifaceted and is enhanced by a number of individual psychosocial and physiological attributes and resources. This is not to say that everyone is resilient or bounces back—or easily bounces back, but it is important to help people realize their strengths and capacity to cope when difficult life circumstances are presented. Some may need support and the assistance of mental health practitioners to guide them in this process and empower them to develop the tools to return to their previous level of functioning. The amount of time it will take an older adult to return to baseline or grow depends upon the individual, their personality, environment, social supports and coping mechanisms they had in place prior to, and post-pandemic. It is critical to recognize that not only returning to baseline is possible, but so is the potential for personal growth.

Society has much to learn from older adults and the lessons learned about coping, thriving and growing over a lifetime of lived experiences. This includes developing coping mechanisms such as rebounding, recovering and reintegrating following this very difficult year and being able to face whatever challenges lie ahead. Tools in building resilience encompass broadening mindsets to foster personal flourishing. Compared with younger adults, older adults reported more positive emotions, more meaningful goals and heightened cognitive processing to enhance emotional fulfillment in their lives.

Many older adults have the capacity to “bounce back,” demonstrating the psychological readiness and positive outlook that can be an invaluable lesson for younger people. The protective nature of resiliency is essential for all of those who are coping with the negative mental health effects experienced during this pandemic. Learning how to cultivate psychological hardiness, having tools to transform experiences positively, and allowing vital involvement with life can be emotionally instructive in helping people age to their greatest potential.

Tobi Abramson, PhD, is director, Geriatric Mental Health, at New York City Department for the Aging and serves on ASA’s Generations Editorial Advisory Board. Pamela Braverman Schmidt, LMHC, LCSW, serves on the American Society on Aging's Mental Health and Aging Leadership Council, and is a professor and coordinator of Human Services at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Mass.