Behind the Scenes: Why people over 60 have done the best in terms of well-being during COVID

The beginning of COVID (March 2020) – “My husband and I are afraid we will end up dying in our home.” (87 year old woman)

16 months later (July 2021) – “We have discovered how much we love being home, have downsized our lives and recalibrated our time.” 


When thinking about older people during COVID, many conjure the image of being stuck in assisted living, isolated, and dying. While that has been true for some seniors, the reality is, that, according to the research, people over 60 have done better than any other age group in terms of mental well-being (Helliwell, Huang, Wang, & Norton 2021). The studies give some clues as to why the over 60s have done so well but not an overall picture/perspective. This paper will attempt to address the behind the scenes of why and how some of the over 60s did so well and lessons they learned.

The paper is research based and illustrated by discussions among a group of seven women who have been in a virtual COVID connection and community group* facilitated by the author, along with 30 people who have had conversations with the author discussing what has helped them get through COVID. This particular sample of 37 individuals over 60 is mostly from Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley in California. Although it is not random and is biased towards highly educated, above-average income people, it definitely represents real people dealing with COVID and highlights some of the issues raised in the research literature.

The goal of providing this information is to help individuals trying to be get through COVID as successfully as possible as well as to inform social service providers and policy makers trying to understand and implement policies to assist individuals, especially those over 60. 

How people successfully cope with COVID continues to evolve. 


*Dedicated to Mary Male, a truly special, kind and giving person.

The virtual connection and community group is made up of 7 women, ages 60-87, Started at the beginning of COVID (February 2020), mostly with strangers, the group was initially scheduled to be three sessions and continues. All are retired from professional/semi-professional careers, have sufficient resources and live in their own homes. Four live with their partner/spouse, 3 live alone, 6 identified as heterosexual, 1 bisexual. All have pets.


Overall, older people who have been most successful at dealing with COVID appear to be the same individuals who have been most successful at dealing with life and retirement. They: 

  • Had the resources, personal traits like resilience and gratitude, and experience which gave them a sense of control in the midst of feeling out of control with the pandemic; 
  • Found ways to stay connected with their social and digital/internet networks including virtually with people they missed and intellectual pursuits they needed; 
  • Were self-reliant and had others to lean on when needed;
  • Lived with pets;
  • Had more time at home and used some of it to reflect on their circumstances, plan ahead and implement activities to deal with their concerns, including joining a virtual connection and community group;
  • Had or re-created a sense of purpose;
  • Stayed healthier and health problems fell;
  • Exercised and lived in safe comfortable environments.

Resources 

Research finds that with increased wealth, education and socioeconomic status come increases in perceived control and opportunities for controlling transitions through life even as one goes through a pandemic (Laura L. Carstensen, Yochai Z. Shavit, Jessica T. Barnes, 2020; Calvo and Sarkisian, 2011; Mitchell, Ailshire, Brown, Levine, and Crimmins, 2016; Mirowsky and Ross, 2007). This group of over sixties was highly educated and had accumulated sufficient wealth to remain independent.  They did not have to deal with some of the major stressors during COVID such as the fear or reality of losing their jobs/unemployment, homes or cars, all factors relating to mental well-being. They did not have their own young children to take care of which has been another significant source of stress during the pandemic.

Sense of Control 

”…having a sense of freedom to make key life decisions… plays strong roles in supporting life evaluations” (Helliwell, Huang, Want, & Norton, 2021, p 35). Having a sense of control increases self-efficacy, mental well-being and how well individuals take care of their health (Novak, 2011; Wolinsky, F.D., Wyrwich, K.W., Babu, A. N., Kroeneke, K., & Tierney, 2003). These over 60 were in good health, had health insurance and the resources to make positive life choices, even with COVID limitations and threats.

Traits 

Research also shows that older people are better at dealing with their emotions than when they were younger and in general have more positive emotional experiences than younger people even during major life altering situations (Carstensen, Shavit & Barnes, 2020). Developed traits like resilience and gratitude contribute to older people’s life satisfaction and well-being (Lopez, Perez-Rojo, Noriega, Carretero, Velasco, Martinez-Huertas, 2020). Even when confronted by persistent threats to health and well-being from the COVID-19, older people demonstrate emotional resilience (Carstensen et al., 2020).

Staying Connected – Social Networks and Internet Network

Having social networks (Kubicek et al., 2011) as well as internet connectedness (Cardale and Brady, 2010; Novak, 2011) is vital any time in life and definitely during a pandemic (De Pue, Gillebert, Dierckx, Vanderhasselt, De Raedt & Van den Bussche, 2021). As Carstensen’s socioemotional selectivity theory suggests, with age, one’s time perspective changes to what time one has left and individuals focus more on close emotional relationships (Carstensen 2014; Carstensen et al. 2006). Prior to COVID, these older people knew the value of close relationships in their lives and increasingly spent time doing what has the most meaning to them.

To deal with the COVID physical distancing restrictions, these individuals found ways to connect with their close others. In a short period of time, they were able to form “pods” to be with their friends and family who lived near while maintaining physical distance in their back yards, on walks, etc. They digitally connected with those farther away they loved and missed.

Additionally, they also have had the support and insights from the members of a virtual connection and community group, a group they joined at the beginning of COVID. Members share their experience of what they are doing, how they are coping/dealing during COVID, decisions they are making, and what is working and what is not working. This introspective group of individuals has helped significantly with the confusion of what one could/should do during COVID.

Research also suggests that those over 60 living with partners did better than those living by themselves (Aknin, DeNeve, Dunn, Fancourt, et al. in press; Okabe-Miyamoto et al., 2021 Helliwell, Huang, Want & Norton, 2021). These coupled individuals had already transitioned to successfully living together during retirement (Calvo et al., 2009). Moreover, during COVID, these individuals reported appreciating their partners more than ever and some stated this was the most time they had ever spent with their partners, let alone in their homes together. In pre-pandemic times, compared to people who live with partners, people who live alone become more socially active and involved in their community (Klinenberg, 2012 p 163). Unfortunately, because of COVID restrictions, many living on their own lost these significant meaningful connections.

Having a pet, especially a dog, has helped older people get thru COVID (Oliva & Johnston 2020; Helliwell, Layard, Sachs, DeNeve, Aknin & Wang, 2021)). Dogs and cats increase the experience of companionship and decrease the isolation and loneliness (Olivia & Johnston 2020). Pets provide a physical connection, a living creature to touch and an excuse to talk to out loud (Olivia & Johnston 2020). Additionally, dogs, not cats, help by offering a routine which includes a reason to get out of the house, increasing exercise and facilitating interacting with others while walking (Olivia & Johnston 2020). All of the women in the group had pets (5 dogs; 2 cats). One person who was living in an assisted living facility and had conversations with the author reported that those with pets seemed to do much better.

Social comparison theory suggests that comparing oneself to others may be a protective factor for psychological wellbeing (Ruggieri, Ingoglia, Bonfanti and Coco, 2021). Onegroup member living by herself retired just as COVID was beginning. At first she reported feeling a bit lonely and adrift. Later on, during our group discussion, shehad the realization that during COVID, in some significant ways, everyone else was in a similar situation experiencing similar limitations and feelings. This realization that she was more like others helped her feel more connected to others, more like others and less alone.

Having someone to count on is important any time in life and especially during a crisis or time of isolation/quarantining. For those over 60, there was an increase in having someone to count on 

(Helliwell, Huang, Want & Norton, 2021; Olivia & Johnston 2020). These older people, even though mostly self-reliant, knew when they needed help. Previous to COVID, they had established relationships with others they could lean on. During COVID they also found other “new” people when needed. Individuals reported that close friends did favors for each other like pick up food to limit exposure. One welcomed a close friend who lives alone into her home and pod when she came to town to visit. Some reported accepting help from neighbors who offered to get food as well as using food delivery and curb side pick-up. In one case, adult children and grandchildren moved to be near their parents/grandparents.

All of these individuals were already connected to the internet and were tech savvy and experienced enough to know the value of using the internet to connect with those they couldn’t see in person and continue with their intellectual pursuits, career commitments and interests (Chang, Wray & Lin, 2014; Novak 2011). They virtually connected with family, friends and this COVID group. They took university and non-university virtual classes like exercise, meditation, art, politics, photography, professional courses, tours/travel and wine tasting. They enjoyed watching movies and documentaries. They reconnected with long term friends from high school and graduate school. Some attended church virtually. Others attended virtual events like their granddaughter’s PhD defense. One continued and expanded her professional life. All of these connections helped ease problems which could arise from isolation, loneliness, missing loved ones and missing meaningful worldly and intellectual pursuits.

Reflected, Planned and Implemented

The literature addressing transitions, including retirement, finds that planning ahead, having goals and implementing something/anything correlate with higher satisfaction (Kubicek et al. 2011; Steinberg 2021). Clearly these women knew the importance of social connection and were intentional about immediately joining a virtual connection and community group. By reflecting on what they were experiencing, and exploring with the others in the group as well as friends and family, they figured out what would be the “safest” things to do that would provide the possibility of staying connected and engaged with meaning and minimal risk.

Comparing and discussing similar yet unique situations, helped with the uncertainty of what could be done during COVID (Ruggieri, Ingoglia, Bonfanit & Coco, 2020). They discussed various options for how to have visits with young children and deal with holidays and trips that had been postponed. Members learned, experimented together and were role models for each other.

For example, to be able to continue visits with friends and family, many bought heaters and lights for their back yards to enable outside visits while social distancing. One woman who had been doing research for her documentary, explored with the group her needing to go abroad. Another member was diagnosed with cancer during COVID and shared her experiences, including her diagnosis, treatment and imminent death. (Ruggieri et al., 2021).

Sense of Purpose

There is an abundance of research supporting the importance of the experience of mattering (Froidevaux, Hirschi, & Wang, 2016) and having a sense of purpose for mental and physical health (Strecher, 2016; Alimujiang, Wiensch, Boss, Flischer, Mondul, McLean, Mukherjee & Pearce, 2019; Kim, Hershner & Strecher, 2015). This has definitely been true during the pandemic when people had the potential to lose much of their daily routine, schedule, and meaningfulness. Volunteering during COVID was associated with better mental health (Aknin, DeNeve, Dunn et al. in press). Examples of what individuals did to “volunteer” were: collected masks and food for essential workers, worked at a vaccination site, started and facilitated connection and community groups locally and at a university, supervised university faculty, TAs and staff dealing with working remotely during the pandemic, and helped with childcare for grandchildren who lost their childcare because of COVID.

Health 

Although older people in assisted living suffered greatly as they were part of the original groups to be diagnosed, sickened, isolated and in some cases die with COVID, over time, reporting of health problems fell for those over 60. In fact, health and improvements in well-being have been concentrated among those over the age of 60 (Helliwell, Huang, Wang & Norton, 2021, p 36). All those discussing their situations for this article and members of the connection group got vaccinated as soon as vaccines were available.

The Environment

How older people feel about their neighborhood is important for positive mental health (Aneshensel, Harig and Wight, 2016). Feeling safe and trusting in one’s community is an important factor for one’s mental well-being and enabled them to continue to do things like walk, bike, kayak and socialize (Helliwell, Huang, Wang, & Norton, 2021).

Fortunately for these older people who lived in Santa Cruz, CA, they lived in a beautiful environment with mostly mild temperatures enabling them to do things that support well-being like meet friends and/or exercise outside while physically distancing (Aknin, DeNeve, Dunn et al. in press; Okabe-Miyamoto & Lyubomirsky, 2021; Aneshensel, Harig, and Wight, 2016).

Lessons Learned

“We’ve downsized our lives and recalibrated time” (all seven members of the connection group). During COVID, with more time to think and reflect about what is satisfying and meaningful, these over 60s discovered how much they like being home. For many, their focus changed to more internal stimuli (self and home) vs external stimuli. Life became more simplified which made decisions easier. They found themselves more appreciative of their partners, home time and Santa Cruz; One even felt more comfortable being introverted.

Mary, the woman diagnosed with terminal cancer had the chance to “rethink almost everything including what’s important and rituals to continue.” She continued to live life fully including traveling to be with close family members until she couldn’t and then she implemented The California End of Life Option Act. One week before she ended her life, we had the virtual group and she said goodbye; Two days before she ended her life she wrote “…This group is so amazing in the steadfastness of the love and support! I am just blown away by your presence and am so sad to have to say good bye. Thank you for all the things you’ve done to make this scary and uncertain journey bearable. I love you to the moon and back! xoxo Mary.” Although the good bye was remarkably sad and hard, the good bye was also a bit uplifting. One group member expressed it well – “Having feelings of heaviness opposite feeling lifted up. All the words expressed with our group: inspired, awestruck, deeply moved.” This was a poignant experience for all of the members, discussing end of life with choice, agency, support and love. Everyone was grateful for the deep and genuine discussions and connections about this difficult universal life issue we all face.

As the research and these participants demonstrate, sufficient finances, good health, exercise, families that function well, gratitude and resilience and a trusting environment had strong associations with purpose in life and getting through COVID more successfully (Lopez, Perez-Rojo et al., 2020).

Lessons learned from the research (DePue, Gillebert et al., 2021) and these over 60s demonstrate that when faced with extreme stressors such as COVID-19 and other variants, prevention and intervention strategies can help older adults do better. It is clear that what the socioemotional selectivity theory posits, close social and internet connections, are vital.

The World Happiness Report summed up the COVID experience — “People have not toured the world, but many have rediscovered their neighbourhoods” (Helliwell, Huang, Wang & Norton, 2021, P50); The participants added, that they also rediscovered their homes, and lives.

All of the group members and interviewees are considering how to take these experiences and lessons learned forward as they continue to deal with COVID and hopefully a post-COVID life.

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