Coping with COVID-19 Stress: Differences in How Older, Younger Adults Handle Pandemic Stressors

Studies show that older age is associated with higher levels of emotional wellness and less reactivity to stressors. Researchers recently conducted a study to determine if this held true during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers sought participants in the US and Canada. They initially recruited 913 individuals ages 18 to 91 through print, television, and radio news outlets; social media; community organizations; and institutions such as hospitals. The participants were asked to complete an online baseline survey and online diaries for seven days. Persons who completed fewer than four surveys or who didn’t answer important questions were excluded, resulting in 776 total participants. The researchers measured perceptions of COVID-19 stress (such as concerns about safety, strain on finances, and concerns about achieving work goals), daily affect, daily stressors, positive events, perceived control over stressors, and how well they coped with stressors.

The study showed that younger and middle-aged adults had more concerns about COVID-19 for emotional well-being, finances, and work goals than did older adults. Older age was associated with higher positive affect, lower negative affect, less affective reactivity to events, and more frequent positive events overall. There were no differences in the frequency of COVID-19 stressors or perceptions of stressor severity by age. While older adults felt less control over stressful situations, they reported better perceptions of their ability to cope with stressors as compared to younger adults. The researchers suggested that this is in line with theories that older adults employ strategies such as “positive reappraisal” (thinking about a stressor as benign or even beneficial) more often than trying to directly change a situation.

The authors acknowledged that it was possible that some results were related to the different social roles of older and younger adults. In addition, the sample was primarily white and well-educated, so the results may not generalize to other populations. Nonetheless, the study suggests that older adults, on average, are more psychologically resilient than younger adults during the pandemic. The authors suggest that efforts to improve mental health during COVID-19 center on modifying stress appraisals and promoting distanced positive events on a daily basis.

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Klaiber P, Wen JH, DeLongis A, Sin NL. The ups and downs of daily life during COVID-19: Age differences in affect, stress, and positive events. The Journals of Gwerontology: Series B; (2020); Jul 17.

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