COVID-19 and older adults research findings

May 12, 2020

From late March though now, Psychology Associate Professor Brenda Whitehead has heard from more than 1,500 older adults nationwide about their pandemic stressors and joys. Here are some preliminary results of her research.

Psychology Associate Professor Brenda Whitehead developed a survey for people ages 60+ to hear about their stressors and joys during this historic pandemic. Whitehead began the study shortly after U.S. states began issuing “stay at home” orders.

With social distancing measures enacted to curb the spread of COVID-19 — combined with the threat the virus has to older adults — Whitehead says there's an impact on mental and emotional health and it is important to understand what older adults are experiencing. “We aren’t built for this,” says Whitehead, a gerontologist whose research interests are stress in later life and the influence of psychological factors on health behaviors. “This is hard for everyone, but younger, healthier adults typically have a larger support system and are more connected through technology. At this time, we need to look out for the older neighbor you see in the window, your grandmother who lives alone, your parents who can no longer hug their grandkids.”

From late March though now, Whitehead has heard from more than 1,500 older adults nationwide in her longitudinal study. Here are some preliminary results of her research, based on initial qualitative observation and statistical analyses:

• When asked what brings joy or comfort, people consistently included family and pets in the top spot. But spouses grew in importance as time progressed. Other themes that increased proportionally over time were faith and hobbies.

• When asked about challenges and stressors, views shifted over time. In March, many people used the word “nothing” when asked about stressors; that was no longer the case by mid-April. As the pandemic went on, people grew more concerned with missing family, social distancing and President Donald Trump. 

• Respondents said positive emotions during the pandemic were associated with: Having more social support, being married/partnered, having pets, earning a higher income, keeping a positive perspective of aging, and perceiving the pandemic to be less severe in duration or impact.

Whitehead said more formal analysis is being conducted and prepared for publication.

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