What we can learn from older adults in this crisis

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 5 Minutes

What we can learn from older adults in this crisis

Whereas in February we were still joking about the situation in China – only one month later we found ourselves in the midst of a global crisis. Fierce restrictions and containment made our world smaller overnight, forcing us to make the best of our daily life in a different way than we were used to. We needed coping strategies to deal with all of that, but no one seemed to have any previous experience we could take lessons from.

No one? No. There ís a group we can learn from in this extraordinary time: the older adults. This population, in this crisis often considered a vulnerable group, can be seen as a source of inspiration, as older adults already have experience in dealing with limitations in life.

I’m referring here to what is known as the paradox of ageing. Although older people are often confronted with physical, mental, and cognitive challenges, they score surprisingly high on quality of life. Theories in the field of social and emotional ageing describe the coping strategies older people follow to ensure these levels of quality of life, despite decline (Charles & Carstensen, 2009). Coping strategies we all can benefit from in this exceptional era.

Forced to choose 
In the crisis, we suddenly had to choose and select. We were asked to only travel with public transport if strictly necessary, and only to meet-up with a limited number of friends. Striking – and somewhat confusing –  was the RIVM’s call to limit social contacts to only one sex buddy; a message that was already revised shortly.

Whereas most of us were overtaken by these restrictions, the older ones among us were already familiar with limitations before the crisis, as both their energy level and time left are limited. The socio-emotional selectivity theory (Carstensen et al, 1999) explains that older adults are particularly good in choosing and selecting. They focus on most valuable relations – family members, close friends – and activities in life. And guess what? It turns out to be a successful strategy to maintain wellbeing.

Early in the crisis, my grandfather passed away. We had no other choice than only invite the closest relatives to his funeral. After the disappointment, we embraced this extraordinary setting. It was more intimate than we could ever have achieved in a packed church service. I learned to appreciate the restriction, as it helped us to focus on most important things and persons in life.

Alternative strategies
For almost everything that had been totally normal in daily life, we suddenly needed alternative strategies. Skype meetings, walking routes, queue management, disinfection routines. Whereas some of us dealt very well with it, others had more difficulties in getting used to new strategies such as working from home.

New strategies for older adults? Been there done that! The theory of Selection Optimization & Compensation (Baltes & Baltes, 1990) explains how older adults, more than younger ones, are good in finding alternatives. When getting older, they continuously have to deal with physical and cognitive decline and restrictions. Although the COVID restrictions are of a different kind, older adults seem to know how to handle this. Selection refers to selecting the relevant goals that, realistically, can be achieved in the particular circumstances. Optimization is defined as optimizing the own capabilities to achieve these goals. Compensation includes the alternative strategies where objectives cannot be achieved in the usual way.

Being able to develop compensation strategies can be very beneficial these days. Personally, I needed the crisis to say goodbye to my gym. I’ve become a happy runner over the previous months, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened without the gym closing its doors. My grandmother, instead, easily switched to the church service on her Smart TV, because at her age she didn’t always visit the service live anyway.

Everything under control
Control, what’s that? Over the previous months, we have lived our lives week by week. We started counting down towards April 7, soon that became 1 Juno. At first only the terraces would open, then the restaurants and bars followed. Will my appointment at the hairdresser take place? My vacation? Most of us found it hard to accept this uncertainty.

According to the lifespan theory of control (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995) older adults are better in accepting things they cannot influence or change. Due to cognitive and physical decline, they are more used to this. My team at the National Foundation for the Elderly has worked hard setting-up a corona panel, consisting of 500 older adults whom we asked for their opinion on crisis related issues. Remarkable was that the eldest group, aged 75+, turned out to feel less mentally effected than the younger group, who indicated to feel more lonely than before. We may explain this by the fact that older adults already before the crisis learned to accept things they cannot change. Facing age-related decline, they got used to adapting their expectations in daily life.  

Take-away’s
Many of us have successfully developed new habits during this crisis. Others are still doubting and considering whether and how they want to go back to their – stressful- pre-COVID lifestyle. Older adults learn us that Fear Of Missing Out won’t make us happy but focussing on most important things in life will do so instead. So, the next time you don’t know how to handle a crisis? Ask some older people (stay safe at six feet :)) to share their experiences. Because most of all we need to do this together.

References

  • Baltes PB & Baltes MM. (1990). Selective optimization with compensation. In: Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carstensen LL., Isaacowitz D. & Charles ST (1999). Taking time seriously: a theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychology Journal, 1999 54(3), 165–81.
  • Charles, ST & Carstensen LL. (2009). Social and Emotional Aging. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2009. 61:383–409
  • Heckhausen J & Schulz R (1995). A Life-Span Theory of Control. Psychological Review 1995, 2(2), 283-304.

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

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