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Community Boosted Older Adults' Resilience During Pandemic, Study Shows

A woman wearing a mask and a blue glove touches the hand of an older woman inside a home from behind a piece of glass.
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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study on more than 200 older adults found that while most experienced difficulties early in the pandemic, many also were able to see some bright sides.
  • A sense of community and collective initiatives helped older adults bolster resilience during the public health crisis.
  • People can strengthen their resilience through social engagement, creative thinking, and meaningful activities.

The famous Beatles song lyric “I get by with a little help from my friends” may offer some clues about why some older adults were able to focus on the positives amid the stress of the pandemic, according to a new study.

Recent research published by The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences surveyed more than 200 people around the age of 71 and found that maintaining interpersonal connections helped older adults build resilience and alleviate stress. The findings highlight the importance of community for mental health, especially as we age. 

The Study

To learn about the vulnerability and resilience of older adults in the early days of the pandemic, a team of researchers from Oregon State University surveyed 235 Oregon residents between the ages of 51 and 95 years old, with an average age of about 71, from April 28 to May 4, 2020.

The online survey included scales and open-ended questions, where participants could share the challenges they were experiencing during the pandemic, as well as the positives that came out of it. Researchers then coded their answers into 12 positive categories (such as “social optimism” and “sense of community”) and nine difficulties (including “psychological distress” and “worry about personal finances”). 

The results showed that at least 94% of participants experienced difficulties early on in the pandemic and 63% listed positives.

Edwin Poon, PhD

The fact that two-thirds of respondents identified positive experiences because of COVID-19 indicates that older adults are likely more resilient than we expected.

— Edwin Poon, PhD

“It is not surprising that most older adults in this study reported personal difficulties due to COVID-19. This is consistent with the general concern that the pandemic might have created a mental health crisis among older adults,” says Edwin Poon, PhD, licensed psychologist and director of behavioral health integration at CalOptima, a community-based health plan that serves low-income people in Orange County, California. 

“However, the fact that two-thirds of respondents identified positive experiences because of COVID-19 indicates that older adults are likely more resilient than we expected,” he adds.

Findings on Community

On the interpersonal level, participants shared many concerns for others, such as their grown children’s finances and their grandchildren’s education during remote learning. However, a greater sense of community seemed to help ease some of those worries.

David A. Merrill, MD, PhD

Feeling connectedness with others is a powerful psychological tool that brings us comfort.

— David A. Merrill, MD, PhD

“Even if not physically together, feeling mentally connected with others is a way to push back against the otherwise overwhelming feelings of loss triggered by the increased social isolation brought on by the pandemic,” says David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

Participants felt uplifted by community efforts, such as groups sewing masks and neighbors helping each other. Despite missing close connections with loved ones, some participants felt a strong sense of community solidarity, which helped them feel less alone during a tough time.

“Community can keep people emotionally and intellectually engaged,” says Rebecca Weingarten, MScEd, a trained counselor and psychoanalyst who co-founded the nonprofit RWR Network and worked with older adults to maintain productive lifestyles amid the stress of the pandemic.

Overall, many older adults in the study showed resilience, defined as “the ability to see positives in the midst of negative situations,” in the early stages of the pandemic, which helped both individuals and collective groups overcome adversity. 

“Resilience is a path toward better health and well-being for older, and younger, adults. It’s important to look for life’s silver linings, and the more you put energy into these positive elements of life, the better you’ll feel,” says Dr. Merrill.

Limitations of the Research

While the study deepened the understanding of how older adults, who were uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19, fared during the first few weeks of the pandemic, it is limited by a few factors, such as a relatively homogeneous group of participants. 

All participants were from Oregon, nearly three-quarters were women, and more than 90% were white. Most were healthy, well educated, and lived with a spouse or partner.

They may have had significantly different experiences than older adults of other races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, notes Elissa Kozlov, PhD, instructor and core faculty at Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research. Dr. Kozlov researches ways to improve psychological outcomes for older adults with serious illnesses. 

“Additionally, this study was conducted in the earlier phases of the pandemic,” she adds. “I would be very curious to see how these individuals’ responses to the questions changed as the pandemic endures.” Still, the findings help advance scientific knowledge of how resilience is built and the ways it can benefit people as they age.

“Understanding how resilience can serve as a protective factor will help us identify ways to support older people who are more vulnerable to mental health issues during the pandemic,” says Poon. “Older adults might be more resilient to the anxiety, depression, and stress related to COVID-19 than younger adults.”

His statement is supported by a June 2020 survey of more than 5,400 U.S. adults, which found that people age 65 and up were less likely to have symptoms of anxiety or depression compared with young adults—potentially a result of the resilience they’ve built throughout their lives.

Strengthening Resilience

Resilience doesn’t eliminate stress and difficulties, but rather helps us cope with challenges that happen throughout our lives, such as health problems, deaths, career changes, and natural disasters

“A lot of times we think about resilience as a personality trait, and it's true that there are some qualities that may help people experience that. But in the end, resilience is something that is shared,” Heidi Igarashi, PhD, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “One of the things that came out in our study was the degree to which the people-connection was really significant.”

Fortunately, there are ways to hone and strengthen this trait, which can help you deal with stress. Finding ways to look at challenging situations from a variety of angles can help bolster your resilience, says Dr. Kozlov. “A lot of times, we get a little stuck in our way of thinking about a problem which prevents us from finding new solutions.”

Elissa Kozlov, PhD

I love that a lot of the older adults in this study viewed the pandemic not only as a new challenge, but also as a new opportunity to simplify life and re-engage in hobbies and their hyper-local community.

— Elissa Kozlov, PhD

Engaging in your social life (safely, of course!) can also be helpful, adds Dr. Poon. “Seeking out engaging activities, such as remote volunteerism opportunities, home-based hobbies, and even social media are ways seniors can remain socially active and connected despite the pandemic,” he says. 

You can also strengthen your resilience to challenges by incorporating meaningful and joyful activities into your daily life.

“That can start with asking yourself simple, albeit difficult to answer, questions. Things like ‘What parts of your day are your favorite? What do you do that is most purposeful? What is not so meaningful in your life that you can perhaps work toward letting go of or diminishing in importance or effort?’” says Dr. Merrill, suggesting activities like “making a good cup of coffee, going on a longer walk,” and “volunteering or other selfless acts.” 

If challenges feel overwhelming, consider seeking mental health support, advises Dr. Poon. “No one has to go it alone,” he says. “People can check with their health plan and connect with providers who are trained to support their mental wellness.”

What This Means For You

New research shows that social connections and a sense of community contributed to the resiliency of older adults during the pandemic. While the findings have limitations, they help deepen our understanding of the ways relationships can help individuals and groups overcome adversity. 

Resilience is more than a personality trait—it’s a skill that can be strengthened. Experts say you can bolster resiliency by thinking creatively, maintaining an active social life, and adding meaningful activities into your days. If the challenges of the pandemic or any other stressor prove overwhelming, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Igarashi H, Kurth ML, Lee HS, Choun S, Lee D, Aldwin CM. Resilience in older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic: a socioecological approachJ Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. Published online April 21, 2021. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbab058

  2. Czeisler MÉ, Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(32):1049-1057. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1

  3. Oregon State University. Study: Older adults found resilience during pandemic through community, human connection. Published April 29, 2021.