The elderly are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. This necessitates stricter isolation, which can increase their sense of loneliness, isolation, and dependence on others, while making it harder for them to exercise or participate in their communities. These factors combine to hurt their physical and mental well-being.
Luckily, not all is lost, according to Daniel Levitin, author of Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. Levitin is a psychologist who has taught at Stanford, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, McGill University, and the Keck Graduate Institute in California. He is also the author of numerous bestselling books, including This Is Your Brain on Music, The World in Six Songs, The Organized Mind, and Weaponized Lies.
In his new book, Levitin argues that older people have particular strengths that can help them not just get through this time but thrive. With some adjustments, he says, they can still aim for a life of aging well, even as they need to continue sheltering in place. Here is an edited version of our conversation about how the elderly can navigate the pandemic.
Jill Suttie: What are the unique ways that older people have been impacted by the pandemic and the need to quarantine?
Daniel Levitin: It’s profound. The lockdown has affected all of us, but it’s disproportionately affected older adults for two reasons: They’re more vulnerable to the disease and so they have to follow or should be following stricter protocols, and they tend not to have the social lives of younger people, particularly if they’re retired.
Now, it’s important to distinguish loneliness from isolation in that many people who are isolated don’t feel lonely, and many people feel lonely when they’re in a crowded room. They are two different psychological constructs. But loneliness, in particular, leads to detriments in immune system function and increases in stress levels. So, we’ve got a recipe for a lot of psychological trouble.
JS: How should the elderly deal with loneliness?
DL: It’s important to think about who you have in your life—whether it’s a neighbor, a family member, or an old friend who for whatever reason might be isolated—and reach out to them.
In my own case, my parents, who are 88 and 86, we used to talk to each other during the week regularly, but haphazardly. Then, last April, we started scheduling a weekly family Zoom meeting for me, my sister and them, and occasionally our spouses, too. It’s every week, Sunday at 5:00, and they can look forward to it. We never schedule anything in conflict with it. That provides some structure, stability, and reassurance, which is important right now.
I’ve also made a note of people in my life who are currently in situations where they’re not having regular contact, either in person or virtually. And I make it a point to catch up with them. So yesterday, for example, I spent an hour on a Zoom call with Lou Goldberg for his 90th birthday. Your readers will know his name because he was “the father” of the Big Five personality measures. Having to show up to a Zoom call and interacting with an old friend was good for both of us.
JS: Many of us are already Zooming with family and friends. Is there any way to get more out of those interactions?
DL: My closest friend is Michael Brook; he’s a composer and he lives about half a mile from here. I would walk to his house when we were allowed to have dinners together outdoors, six feet apart. Now that we’re not even allowed to do that, we’ve set up a regular phone call. In many respects, it’s more pleasurable than Zoom. It’s less distracting and more intimate. I actually think the old-fashioned telephone call is really nice and a different kind of experience.
I’ve just recently gotten back into letter writing, which, like most people, I stopped doing in the ’90s when I had email. But I’m writing letters and sending them in the mail, and it’s a completely different experience. It’s a nice way to connect. It feels more intimate.
There are great individual differences here. Not everybody responds to the same thing the same way. My best advice is to try a bunch of different things—whether it’s a one-on-one Zoom call or phone call with a friend, or a group call with friends, family, or, maybe, a book discussion group or online bridge game with people you don’t know. Everybody’s going to have a different reaction to these things, and they’re all worth exploring.
JS: In your book, you mention social connections as important for aging well—but you also say curiosity, openness, conscientiousness, and health practices are important, too. Wouldn’t you agree that these are harder to practice during the pandemic?
DL: Well, no, I wouldn’t. It takes a little more effort, but let’s pick it apart.
Conscientiousness is the easy one—you have to wash your hands, wear a mask. I usually get an annual physical. Last year we saw each other in person; this year, we’ll do it virtually. Beyond being conscientious about the coronavirus, we need to follow the healthy practices of good diet, good exercise, and good sleep.
I’m a big believer in scheduling exercise, saying to yourself, “I’m going to exercise (or at least move around) a certain number of minutes at a specific time.” If it’s not in the calendar, it may never happen. Now that most of us have cell phones with alarms, one quick and easy trick is to set a bunch of alarms—at 10:00 I’m going to do my pushups, at 11:00 I’ll walk around the block.
As for openness and curiosity, I think those are easy to follow, as well. Many of us lost our commutes and now work from home. When the lockdown first happened, I realized I got an extra 45 minutes a day. How am I going to use that time? I’m reading books I never would have had time to read, and I’ve developed a curiosity about learning to play a new instrument. I’ve been taking ukulele lessons online. It’s been a wonderful time to cultivate these things.
JS: That sounds good, but I think a lot of people are having trouble motivating themselves in that way. So many of us feel down and low-energy.
DL: I hope I didn’t say it’s easy to be curious and conscientious. I should have said it’s a good time to put those principles into practice.
Everybody in the world is experiencing some form of chronic, low-grade depression right now. And some people are deeply stressed. The biggest stressors in life are financial uncertainty, sudden changes in routine, relationship trouble, job loss, and uncertainty about the future. I think all of us are at least experiencing some of these right now, and all of these can lead to depression.
But the usual ways to get yourself out of the doldrums apply here, like psychotherapy. It works, though not every therapist works for every person. But, if you get with the right therapist, especially a cognitive-behavioral therapist, who can give you the right tools and is future-oriented, then that person can help you put systems in place to do what you want to make yourself happier.
Therapy doesn’t work for everybody. Some people find help in meditation, yoga, or exercise; other people find inspiration in the arts, listening to music, or reading a good novel. Some find a role model and say, “Oh, I want to be like that. They inspire me.”
For some people, though, it’s a matter of medications. There are adults who find themselves less motivated, and it might be purely because of life circumstances, but it could also be biological—a depletion of chemicals that they need, and the right prescription will get them back on track. Dopamine is just one of many neurochemicals that comes to mind when we think about enhancing conscientiousness and curiosity. But there are about a hundred neurochemicals that could play a role.
JS: Are there any particular cognitive strengths or special tools older folks could draw upon during this time, to help them get through the pandemic?
DL: One thing is that older adults tend to feel more gratitude, and gratitude is a great equalizer. It reduces stress, because you’re not thinking about all the things you don’t have. You’re thinking about what you do have and are grateful for it. That puts you in a better mood, which then helps you to take pleasure from things and start new projects.
The other is creating structure. In broad strokes, if you don’t have anything that you need to do, because you retired or you’ve lost your job, let’s say, the first thing to do is find something that you have to do. It could be volunteer work—talking to people in an old age home, volunteering to call people who are in the hospital, working with a charity, or organizing for a political cause on the local or national level. All of these things can be done from home and can be scheduled.
I’m a big believer in scheduling. If you have an appointment to meet with somebody on a call or to meet with a committee about tackling homelessness in your neighborhood, those are external obligations that help focus your attention, your efforts, and your cognitive abilities. They’re important because they stimulate the brain.
When my father was feeling a bit down (he’s 88 and was an accountant), I was saying to him, “You should tutor somebody. It would give you some structure and some meaning.” He objected, saying that he didn’t know what was relevant these days and hadn’t kept up with all the laws. But I said, “That’s not the point. Somewhere out there, there’s a 25- or 35-year-old accountant who just wants to hear about the arc of a career or has ethical or conceptual questions. You could reach out to one of the professional organizations and make yourself available as a mentor.”
That’s just one of a hundred examples of things people can do. Most people have some skill or knowledge that younger people lack. To be able to offer it builds associations and gives your life structure and meaning. If we want to be healthy and productive and happy during this lockdown, we need to be conscientious about these things, making sure that we schedule our time and use it well.