Experts from the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation have been studying the well-being of older adults during this time, releasing periodic insights from the National Poll on Healthy Aging (NPHA) to help families, friends, health care providers and policymakers better address the needs of older adults, and to pinpoint elders whose needs have been overlooked. These pandemic-related healthy aging polls have focused on topics such as loneliness, fall risk, alcohol use, mental health, vaccine acceptance, and telehealth.
The most recent poll, released on December 14, 2021, showed that many people aged 65 and older are continuing to experience quite a bit of stress, not only due to the possibility of catching COVID-19, but also from concern about activities that could raise their risk, such as being in a crowded indoor or outdoor space, or having visitors in their home. About 27% of the seniors polled felt nervous about leaving their home at all.
Many also are stressed by the loss of normal activities, such as family celebrations and group events. Many are nervous about the well-being of their family and friends. Almost half are worried about money. And over half of the seniors polled are stressed over politics and other national events, which many experts say have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Yet most of the older adults surveyed are coping. More than 70% report feeling as resilient as they did before the pandemic, and 15% say their resilience has increased. Despite it all, many are finding joy in the world—most commonly, by spending time outdoors, through connections with friends and family even if those were online or socially distanced, and with hobbies and projects. And 58% even reported they enjoyed spending time alone!
Not surprisingly, a person’s circumstances affect how they are doing at this time. “Those experiencing less joy and greater stress were more likely to have fair or poor physical or mental health,” the poll authors reported. “There were notable income disparities in experiences of joy and stress, highlighting the potential vulnerability of older adults in lower income households to the current economic and social conditions.” They survey authors call for greater support for these elders.
“Older adults, and all of us, need to find that balance between protecting ourselves and being overly hesitant to engage in activities that can bring us the kind of joy that supports our physical and emotional well-being,” said NHPA director Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease expert with training in geriatrics. “This poll shows this may be especially important for those who have developed a stress-based response to activities that once were indeed very risky before vaccines, boosters and increased access to rapid testing, but now can be safely navigated by most people. This includes small gatherings of fully vaccinated people or attending events with vaccination, testing, and requirements for masks.”
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is an ever-changing situation, and there have been developments even in the month since the poll was released. The highly contagious omicron variant has entered the picture—but on the plus side, boosters are now widely available, and more people are testing regularly. The experts urge greater clarity in public health messaging, noting that stress lessens when a person can access accurate, trustworthy and up-to-date information about the risk level of various activities and about ways older adults can protect themselves and reduce their risk of exposure.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor about your risks, and the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19.