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Older Adults and Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic: 5 Proven Strategies

Episode #40January 5, 2021

When we think of older adults during COVID, images of older adults living in long-term care communities sheltering in place with hands pressed against windows trying to connect with loved ones circle in our heads.

2020 was a year of incredible hardship and pain for many people and especially for many older adults and their families. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults have the greatest risk of requiring hospitalization or dying if they’re diagnosed with COVID-19. This has been one of the most heartbreaking fall outs of the pandemic.

(Images retrieved on 1/5/21 from:

We also know that many older families living with dementia or other significant illness during COVID-19 have been hit especially hard with closures of adult day programs and reduction of services. Not to mention, that when people with dementia become disoriented, the presence of family and friends, which is well-known to benefit people experiencing disorientation, is limited, and with masks blocking our facial expressions, it’s harder to reassure and soothe people who desperately need comfort and reorientation.

A message of hope

All of this is true, and yet, it is only part of the story when it comes to older adults and COVID. Research over the past year has shown that older adults have been, by and large, psychologically resilient during the pandemic.

In August 2020, the CDC published a survey of more than 5,000 adults. The older adults surveyed reported significantly lower percentages of anxiety disorder (6.2%), depressive disorder (5.8%), or trauma- or stress-related disorder (TSRD) (9.2%) than participants in younger age groups. For example:

  • Among young adults aged 18 through 24, 49.1% reported anxiety disorder; 52.3%, depressive disorder; and 46%, TSRD.
  • Among participants between 25-44 years old, 35.3% reported anxiety disorder; 32.5%, depressive disorder; and 36% for TSRD.
  • Of participants aged 45-64 years old, 16.1% reported anxiety disorder; 14.4%, depressive disorder; and 17.2%, TSRD.

Older adults also reported lower rates of substance use and suicidal ideation in the preceding 30 days, compared to the younger age groups.

These findings are similar to other reports from other countries like Spain, Canada, and the Netherlands.

Here’s the bottom line…

Older adults tend to be really good at coping

At the beginning of the pandemic, as a society and health and mental health providers, our immediate concerns focused on how older adults would respond to COVID-19 and we were especially concerned about how loneliness and isolation would be exacerbated as lockdown measures were implemented. I focused on this as well with several articles and podcast episodes.

What we have seen, however, are high rates of resilience among older adults.

What is resilience?

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, life-altering health problems, disasters, COVID-19, etc (American Psychological Association)

To illustrate this point even further, in a recent New York Times article, Mark Brennan-Ing, a senior research scientist at Hunter College’s Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging described this phenomenon of older adults coping well with the COVID-19 pandemic as “crisis competence”.

“There’s crisis competence. As we get older, we get the sense that we’re going to be able to handle it, because we’ve been able to handle challenges in the past. You know you get past it. These things happen, but there’s an end to it, and there’s a life after that.” – Mark Brennan-Ing cited in The NY Times- reference below

How are older adults with depression doing during COVID-19?

Researchers from five academic institutions, (UCLA, University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University, Washington University in St. Louis and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health/University of Toronto) recently found that the older adults, who were already enrolled in ongoing studies of treatment resistant depression, also exhibited resilience to the stress of physical distancing and isolation.

“We thought they would be more vulnerable to the stress of COVID because they are, by CDC definition, the most vulnerable population, but what we learned is that older adults with depression can be resilient. They told us that coping with chronic depression taught them to be resilient”. – Helen Lavretsky, MD, a professor-in-residence of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Download the free COVID-19 Wellness Guide for Older Adults

Free guide to help older adults thrive during COVID

5 Proven Resilience Strategies Used by Older Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic

1. Focus on the quality (not quantity) of relationships

Loneliness and isolation have been a primary concern related to older adults during COVID. Yet, researchers have found that for older adults experiencing isolation, having more close or meaningful relationships seems to be more protective than having more interactions with others.

2. Tap into wisdom & compassion

Researchers identify Wisdom as a complex personality trait that includes prosocial behaviors like empathy and compassion, emotional regulation, the ability to self-reflect, decisiveness while accepting uncertainty and diversity of perspectives, social advising, and spirituality.

Several recent studies have shown that the more wisdom we have, the less loneliness we experience. Scientists also found that component of wisdom that is correlated most strongly (and inversely) with loneliness is compassion, and suggest that enhancing compassion may reduce loneliness and promote greater well-being.

How does this relate specifically to older adults? Studies show higher levels of wisdom, especially the compassion component, in older than in younger adults.

Interested in deepening a practice of compassion and self-compassion? Check out Kristen Neff’s work at

3. Maintain regular schedules including hobbies, chores, work or exercise.

Maintaining a routine offers many benefits: It helps to provide a sense of security and predictability, it helps to reduce stress and anxiety, and has the added benefit of helping you sleep better at night. Learn more about keeping a routine, and engaging in hobbies and exercise programs tailored just for older adults, by downloading the COVID-19 Wellness Guide for Older Adults.

4. Mindfulness to focus on immediate surroundings and needs without thinking beyond the present.

Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to help slow memory loss and the development of dementia-related diseases, help people to cope better with anxiety and stress, and help to reduce loneliness.

5. Access to mental health care and support.

Accessing mental health care and support groups when you need them are essential to wellness and resilience.

For many people, using their own resources and the strategies listed above may be enough for building their resilience. But at times, an individual might get stuck or need a little extra guidance. And, as we saw with the resilient older adults living with depression, they were already enrolled in some sort of treatment and employed strategies for coping learned in the context of therapy.

Remember you’re not alone on this journey. Older adults have shown us that during difficult times, we can continue to persevere with the support of loved ones, mindfulness and self-compassion, routine, healthy hobbies, and trusted professionals.



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"Dear Dr. Koepp, my 85 year old dad is calling me multiple times a day. It's interrupting my time at work. Sometimes you need something sometimes he just wants to check in. He has someone assisting him almost every day, but he's always calling me. Can you address how to handle an elderly parent who's calling all day long?"

I'm Dr. Regina Koepp. I'm a board certified clinical psychologist and I specialize with older adults and families. I created the psychology of aging podcast to answer some of the most common questions I get about aging, questions about mental health and wellness, changes in the brain like with dementia, relationships, and sex, caregiving, and even end of life. Like I say in my therapy group, no topic is off topic, we just have to have a healthy way of talking about it. So if you're an older adult, or caring for one, you're in the right place. Let's get started.

Welcome to this bonus episode, going forward, I'm going to be adding a bonus from time to time addressing a question from a listener. These will be brief episodes, and I'll call them ask Dr. cap. In these episodes, all read the listeners question and give brief actionable steps that you can take. If you're struggling with the same thing with your older loved one. In the future, you can search for these tips wherever you listen to the podcast by looking for ask kind of like you and me two peas in a pod. If you'd like to ask a question about caring for your aging parents or the older adults in your life, I'll link to a link in the show notes. And you can submit your question there. Maybe you'll get to hear my answer on the show to your very question. So speaking of care tips, if you'd like more tips on helping aging parents, I have a free guide just for you called the ultimate caring for aging parents checklist. I'll link to that in the show notes as well. And I would love for you to join my caring for aging parents Facebook community, where we'll support each other and caring for aging parents. I'll link to that in the show notes as well. Now for this week's Ask Dr. Koepp question.

This week's question comes from Theresa in Atlanta. Dear Dr. Koepp, "my 85 year old dad is calling me multiple times a day, it's interrupting my time at work. Sometimes you need something sometimes he just wants to check in. He has someone assisting him almost every day, but he's always calling me. Can you address how to handle an elderly parent? Who's calling all day long?"

All right, let's jump in to my answer to this listener. Here are five strategies to try. If your older loved one or your aging parent is calling you multiple times a day one, understand what's driving this behavior. So take some time to really think about why they might be calling you multiple times a day. Is there a new medical illness that's been diagnosed? Is there a worsening of an already established medical condition? And perhaps they're experiencing a progression of dementia disorder, or fear and anxiety around an existing condition that's not dementia? Are they going through any big changes or anticipating big changes? Like the loss of a loved one or of their home? Have they recently moved? get curious and take some time to understand what might be causing this behavior, right calling you multiple times a day to is to ask them, invite them into the discussion about why they're calling you multiple times a day.

Ask what's going on for them see if they have thoughts about what's happening just before they call you. Are they lonely? Are they bored? Are they anxious? Do they look to you for support and soothing? Perhaps they can articulate some of those things. And together the two of you can brainstorm. This is a really important point. They're calling you because they rely on you. They trust you. And as you're solving this problem, you can share that hopefully with them. By asking them the same questions you're asking yourself, it gets harder to do this with a dementia disorder, but give it a try. Even in the earlier stages of dementia, people can help people living with dementia can help.

Alright three is to think of other people who in addition to you might be able to reach out to your aging parent or your loved one for a chat or for some company. This can help with distraction if they are anxious. And it can help with alleviating boredom, if they're bored or lonely.

So brainstorm who else and your loved ones life would be open for a phone call and checking in with your aging parent. Number four is to think of activities that they might be able to do similar to the friends and family who might be willing to call coming up with activities can be really helpful with helping with boredom, giving a sense of accomplishment, if they're helping a neighbor of mine was making masks at the beginning of the pandemic, having a sense of purpose, or their activities your loved one can engage in, that would help them feel a part of something, help them feel accomplished.

And then five is to manage expectations. This is an important one. So if your loved one is calling you multiple times a day, it's interrupting your day, it's interrupting your work, it's interrupting the tasks that you have to complete, and it can really throw you off course and make you frustrated, I get that. So instead of multiple times a day, your loved one calling, perhaps you share with your loved one three times during the day that you'd be able to call and check in and have a chat with them. You could say "Hey, Mom, I'll call you at eight, noon, and five, I'll call you in the morning and see how you slept. I'll call you around noon and check in, hear what you're having for lunch. And I'll talk with you and in the evening when I'm making dinner." That way, if you manage the expectation upfront, it will help your loved one know that they could have something to look forward to, and perhaps have a greater sense of security and knowing and certainty and knowing that you will call.

If there are some medical emergencies or mental health emergencies that are brimming, you can also create an emergency plan with them. Perhaps you have a life alert button. Perhaps you have other friends checking in at other times. So everything is not weighing on you. Above all, whatever you do, do it with love. The more that you can think about how you'll handle these situations, the easier it will be to communicate with compassion and with love. So you don't want your older loved one to feel like a burden. There's already the fear there for them. That's a very common fear for older adults who are relying more and more on their family, that they're going to be a burden. And if they sense frustration that's going to confirm this idea that they are a burden. So the more you can plan for these things and figure out how to communicate with love and compassion, but also honoring your own needs and boundaries, the better.

Alright, so there you have it five strategies for how to help your older loved one who's calling you multiple times a day. Do you have a question about helping aging parents or older loved ones in your life? I'll put a link to submit your question in the show notes. Want more support and helping aging parents download the free ultimate caring for aging parents checklist that I made just for you. I'll link to it in the show notes as well. And just a reminder, I would love for you to join my caring for aging parents community on Facebook, where we support each other in caring for our older loved one. You guessed it, I'll link to that in the show notes as well. That's all for today. Now it's your turn. All you have to do is subscribe, leave a review and share this episode with others so that they can be part of the conversation too. One last thing, a special thanks to Jasmine Joyner our psychology of aging podcast in turn for all you do. Lots of love to you and your family. Bye for now.

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