COVID-19 is more dangerous for older people—and so, many assumed, the pandemic would be more dangerous for their mental health, too. In the spring of 2020, we heard about younger people volunteering to visit outdoors with elderly people living alone or take care of shopping for them.
But as researchers began studying how the pandemic was affecting our mental health, a surprising finding emerged: Older people were doing much better than their younger counterparts. In surveys of over 63 countries, it was younger people who were more stressed, depressed, and anxious during the first pandemic spring.
Why might that be the case? A new study surveyed nearly 1,400 older adults in the U.S. to see what traits and practices were protecting them in a time of crisis. Here’s what they found.
1. More meaning in life. In spring 2020, people over 65 reported a greater sense of meaning in life than those under 65. And the greater their sense of meaning, the more optimistic and the less distressed and hopeless they felt.
On the flipside, they were less likely to be searching for meaning in their lives—but that’s actually a good thing. Older people who are searching for meaning tend to have worse well-being, presumably because we expect ourselves to have figured out the meaning and purpose of our lives by some age.
2. More forgiveness of the situation. While we typically think of forgiveness as something you offer to a person, we can also adopt a forgiving attitude toward hardships that we encounter, like natural disasters or illnesses. This attitude involves letting go of and making peace with difficult situations in life.
In this study, the more forgiving of the situation older people were, the better their mental health: less distress and hopelessness, more optimism. In the study, the older adults were more forgiving as a group, and so they reaped the benefits.
“Our most salient examples for healthy mental health adjustment in the midst of a global pandemic may indeed be our resilient elders,” says the study’s lead author, Loren Toussaint, a professor of psychology at Luther College.
What makes older adults adopt this forgiving attitude and see the meaning in their lives? This might sound backward, but according to the researchers’ analyses, it was their lower stress to begin with that made this possible. People over 65 simply saw COVID-19 as less stressful—they were less concerned about the virus, their financial situation, and being able to secure basic necessities—and in turn they were more forgiving and more attuned to meaning.
This kind of resilience to stress is actually not surprising to researchers who study well-being across the lifespan. In a sort of paradox, older people show less stress, less depression, and more positive emotions compared to the middle-aged.
There are various theories about why this might be the case. For one, says Toussaint, there is the experience that comes with age: “Older adults often have been through many trials and struggles in their lives and have learned how to effectively manage them.”
It also seems that our brains find ways to protect us at a time of life that could be filled with physical challenges and loss. For example, older adults seem to narrow their social networks to focus on the connections that give them the most pleasure, and focus more on the present than on the future. And it may simply be the case that older people are free from some of the stressors of middle age around careers, raising kids, and taking care of elderly parents.
Many of these factors may be at work now, even during a pandemic that is more threatening to older people.
Not all older adults have fared so well during COVID, of course, and the mostly white, middle-class respondents in this survey were likely better off than average. But the things that protected them during these difficult times—finding a way to make sense of their new lives and make peace with the hardships—are habits we can all aspire to, even if we don’t have the wisdom and perspective of old age to help us along.