Older people have the upper hand against the Covid blues

Mental health updates

This week I reach state pension age in the UK — 66 — which means that I am now officially old. In two months’ time, I will even be officially old in the US, where I live, and able to draw full social security benefits. That is good news on many levels, not least the fact that ageing, apparently, is good for my mental health.

Recent studies have found that the mental health of older Americans has suffered far less during the coronavirus pandemic than that of younger people. A May study from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging found surprising emotional resilience among Americans aged 50 to 80.

During a survey conducted in January of this year — when US coronavirus deaths were at their peak — two-thirds of US seniors rated their mental health as excellent or very good and a further quarter as good. My 90-year-old father took lockdown in his stride: some studies have found that those 80 and older reported less pandemic anxiety than their 65 to 74-year-old peers. Maybe I’m just not old enough to be that sane yet. 

In a Kaiser Family Foundation survey from March this year, Americans aged 18 to 29 were more than twice as likely as those 65 or older (31 per cent against 14 per cent) to say that worry or stress related to coronavirus had a major impact on their mental health. Grandma fared better too: nearly seven in 10 women under 30 said the pandemic dealt them an emotional blow, compared to 36 per cent of women around their grandmothers’ age. 

So what are all these seniors smoking? Maybe it’s what they’re drinking. Another University of Michigan study found that 23 per cent of 50 to 80 year olds said they had three or more drinks on a typical day in the pandemic and 27 per cent had six or more drinks on one occasion in the past year. (The overall level of drinking was “very concerning”, according to Anne Fernandez, a psychologist at the university.)

But Helene, 79, and Jerry, 80, refugees from Philadelphia now living in Florida, cite more philosophical reasons: “We’re the world war two generation, nothing scares us,” Jerry piped up as I was asking Helene by phone what explained her pandemic mental fitness. Once she could get a word in edgewise, Helene said she wasn’t a “nervous Nellie” by temperament, but added: “The younger generation is not prepared for life.”

Lynn, 80, resident of a Denver suburb, agreed, saying: “By our age you’ve already been through so much.” And David, 79, part of an African American community in South Carolina that, like many non-white communities throughout the US, has been harder hit by Covid-19 than white ones, says he “rode it out pretty smoothly” mostly because “we seniors don’t have the pressures that other people have: I wasn’t working before Covid started and I’m not working after, so my life remained pretty much the same.”

The KFF study found one reason for the age gap was that younger Americans were more likely to be stressed by losing their jobs during the pandemic and more likely to have the additional stress of parenting in an era of remote learning. It also found older people may assume that depression is “a normal part of the ageing process and thus may go unrecognised and untreated”.

Dr Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan and director of the Healthy Aging poll, rejects the idea that seniors appear happier merely because they refuse to admit that they are having emotional problems: she was surprised to find that 87 per cent of those surveyed said they “feel comfortable talking about their mental health”, she notes.

And of course not all US seniors were ecstatic about lockdown: nearly one in five said their mental health worsened during the pandemic, and those with poor physical health or low income suffered most.

Ashley Kirzinger, an associate director at the KFF, says she’s worried about what may happen next: “Mental health seems to be improving as we see light at the end of the tunnel, but if we end up having to shut down again (as Covid-19 cases rise in the US), the mental health crisis could emerge again.” Even I don’t think I’m old enough yet to deal with that.

The writer is an FT contributing columnist

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