Research: Older people resilient, but stressed by COVID-19 isolation

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Mary Devlin uses a laptop computer in London. Researchers have been talking with dozens of older adults in Minnesota and North Dakota since the pandemic started, in an ongoing study of the impacts of isolation.
Peter Macdiarmid | Getty Images

Back in March, as the pandemic forced people to isolate, two gerontologists at North Dakota State University wondered about the toll that potentially months of isolation might take on older adults.

They wanted to learn more about coping skills and the mental health of seniors. So they launched a study, recruiting 76 people between the ages of 70 and 97 who live in North Dakota and Minnesota.

"We asked them questions about their daily lives, their connections with family, friends, neighbors, how they were adapting, and how needing to stay at home and isolate, how that was changing their lives and affecting their well being," said NDSU associate professor Heather Fuller.

Fuller and associate professor Andrea Huseth-Zosel worked with graduate students to interview all of the subjects.

In the initial interviews, they found that most of the older adults were less worried about themselves, and more concerned the pandemic would harm younger family members.

"They were taking precautions, they were staying home, and they were doing everything possible to not get sick,” said Fuller. “But a lot of what we heard was, you know, if it's my time to go, it's my time."

Early on, the researchers consistently encountered positive attitudes among the people in the study. They generally accepted the new form of forced isolation.

They said, "you know, this hasn't really changed my life very much. I don't leave home very much now, anyway. I'm pretty isolated, as it is,” recalled Fuller. “So, to me, it's kind of indicating these are already individuals that are somewhat isolated, and not very integrated within our communities."

a woman stands outdoors
North Dakota State University associate professor Heather Fuller and a colleague are tracking the mental and social well being of older people isolated by the pandemic.
Courtesy NDSU

Fuller is quick to point out the study only includes volunteers, so it's likely missing some of the most isolated older people, who would likely be less willing to talk to a researcher.

Still, less than 20 percent of the people interviewed said they were struggling with isolation or loneliness.

And many showed surprising resilience and adaptability.

"They're like, ‘you know, I'm using FaceTime with my grandkids, and it's the greatest thing ever. And it's the first time I'd ever used it during the pandemic,’” said Fuller. “And so we saw some great adaptation amongst some of those 80-year-olds and above that had never used technology before. But we did also talk to individuals that said, ‘Nope, I'm not interested at all.’"

But as the pandemic has dragged on, the researchers saw many peoples’ attitudes start to change.

"I would say the most common thing that we're seeing is that people are getting tired of it,” said Fuller. “They're getting tired of missing out on life. [They’re] talking about [things like], ‘My family has a reunion every summer and we missed that.’ And they’re worried, especially about the holidays coming up, and whether they are going to have to miss those."

And many of the older adults in the study are worried about winter. During the summer they socialized outdoors, with social distancing and masks. Winter will confine most to their homes. And winter, Fuller points out, with its extended hours of darkness and bitter temperatures, is always isolating for older adults in Minnesota and North Dakota.

"I think this is just a special year during the pandemic, where it's going to be an even bigger concern,” she said. “I think [that for] professionals working with older adults — not just professionals in the aging field, it needs to be faith leaders, it needs to be community leaders at every level, and families — really need to be finding ways to connect older adults in their lives."

Fuller says the research so far also highlights the need to better understand why some older adults cope better than others with social isolation.

Doing this type of research, through all of her conversations with people in their 80s and 90s, Fuller said, has caused her to take a step back from her own pandemic stress and consider the wisdom in the perspectives she was hearing.

"They just could focus on the little things,” she said.

She heard a lot of people saying that this would get better. We’d get through it. “And [they] focus on those simple things like, ‘I'm going to bake cookies today, and that will make me feel better.’ Or, you know, ‘I got a letter in the mail from my niece. And that brightened my whole week,’” she said. “Just one letter that made the whole week."

The researchers plan to continue following the cohort until the pandemic has passed, hoping to gain more understanding of how older adults cope with isolation, and what services might help them feel more connected.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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