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Successful Aging: Why do some people handle the pandemic better than others?

I have not been able to figure out the next three months of my life. During that time, the anniversary of the deaths of several family members will occur. Perhaps I am still grieving and the pandemic has made these previous losses just worse. And yet I know others have been able to take advantage of this time-out and are doing well. Is there something I can learn from them? H.N.

Dear H.N.

We are experiencing the most disruptive time of our lives. For many of us, it is a time of loss. That might include jobs, finances, our home or apartment, seeing friends and family, travel, health and much more. We know that losses accumulate. The combination of family losses and those attributed to the pandemic can exacerbate feelings of sadness. If that sadness is overwhelming and makes you feel depressed, consider seeing a health-care professional. However, there are a number of things you can do on your own: Initiate phone calls, use video conferencing such as Zoom, take a vacation from the news; exercise regularly—walking counts; consider meditation or yoga; eat nutritious meals and even consider getting a pet.

As you noted, there are those who seem to be adjusting well to the pandemic. Here are a few characteristics that typically are not mentioned.

Feel you are valued: It is important that someone or others care about you as indicated in an article by Gordon L. Flett and Marnin J. Heisel in the Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.  Without that, it is easy to feel expendable and even disposable. For older adults, that feeling may be caused by ageism or in some cases, society’s disrespect of older persons and their worth. We become aware of this when we read about who will and will not receive care and treatment if resources are scarce or when read about the disproportionate deaths occurring among nursing-homes’ residents.

Jonice Webb, psychologist and author, identifies two additional characteristics associated with those coping well with the pandemic.

History of feeling alone: Some people are loners and introverted. This new isolation may not be novel for them; they may tolerate being alone better than others. I recently had a conversation with a woman who felt relief during the pandemic. She indicated that her work required her to be very social. As a self-described introvert, she felt liberated just being at home, alone.

Experience with uncertainty. If one has lived long enough, uncertainty has become part of life; it’s nothing new. Not knowing when the pandemic will end or what life will look like post-pandemic might not be a problem for this group. Having dealt with prior ambiguous situations, these individuals have developed skills to trust themselves and feel confident in their coping ability. They have lived with uncertainty before and can do it again.

Here is one more:

Be forgiving:  It is important to be honest and not too hard on ourselves. It is unlikely we will be conducting our lives as we did pre pandemic. Procrastination, moments of frustration, anger, fear and moodiness are considered quite normal during this time. There is no playbook on how to manage yourself during a pandemic.

What can we learn from these observations?

Take action steps to feel valued: This might require being the initiator, reaching out to volunteer and contribute in some fashion. This could be helping your grandchildren with Zoom school, giving time or resources to an organization, doing simple acts of kindness, anything that enhances the well-being of others. There is a saying that when you give, you receive twice as much in return.  Giving of yourself will reap the rewards of “I am a valued person.”

Remember we are resilient: Uncertainty has become a way of life and more so today than ever.   There is uncertainty about the economy, employment, finances, and physical and mental health.  Yet we are reminded of the resilience of older adults. We elders are survivors, have lived through recessions, births and deaths, illness and health, employment and job losses, relocations, retirements, encore careers and more.

Be kind to ourselves: Many of us have high expectations of ourselves, particularly if we have been successful in our endeavors and have managed complex and demanding situations such as work and family. Adapting to the current changes take time. So, let’s not be too hard on ourselves and exercise a little patience. That does not mean lethargy. Let’s keep our eye on the horizon and take our time.

Thank you, H.N for your important question. Consider addressing the multiple losses you have suffered by attending a support group or see a counselor. Above all, take care, be safe and be kind to yourself and others.


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