Older Adults Show Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As we approach the one-year mark of experiencing COVID-19 in the United States, we are all too familiar with how the COVID-19 global pandemic has upended our lives. Many people have shifted everyday activities to an online format and severely limited interaction with others, leading to a potential for increased loneliness, isolation, and resulting negative mental and physical health outcomes. Additionally, older adults are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Research shows that people over the age of 65 are six times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 compared to 18–49-year-olds (Garg, 2020).

Various media sources have also focused extensively on this vulnerability in older adult populations. As a result, older adults may have, particularly in the earlier days of the pandemic, felt especially vulnerable and suffered lower moods compared to younger adults. A widespread media focus on older adults as a vulnerable population can potentially influence how people think about and form attitudes toward aging (Chang et al., 2020; Swift et al., 2017). These aging attitudes are themselves related to a variety of physical, cognitive, and mental health outcomes (Han & Richardson, 2014). Importantly, more negative attitudes about aging could mean more negative outcomes for older adults, on top of the already present risk of COVID-19.

My colleagues and I addressed some of these issues early on in the pandemic in two studies, which are now published in the journal, Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine (Whatley et al., 2020). First, we contacted participants who had completed surveys about mood and aging attitudes in the two years leading up to the pandemic. We administered surveys online to look at whether mood and aging attitudes had changed, potentially as a result of the pandemic. Surprisingly, we did not find differences in mood or aging attitudes, suggesting that that older adults were not experiencing lower outcomes during the pandemic on average. However, our sample was largely White, affluent, and educated, so we next collected data from a more representative national sample of older and younger adults.

In our national study, we found that older adults were still experiencing better outcomes than younger adults in regards to mood and aging attitudes. Specifically, younger adults reported less pleasant and positive moods and reported greater arousal (e.g., feeling nervous or jittery) and negative mood than did older adults. Additionally, older adults reported more serious attitudes and prevention behaviors toward COVID-19 than did younger adults. These results suggest that that older adults were showing resilience in the face of this global pandemic, despite being more concerned about COVID-19 than younger adults.

Some recent studies have demonstrated similar findings. For instance, younger adults have reported more stressors than older adults, in addition to feeling less able to cope with stressors (Klaiber et al., 2021). Older age was also shown to be associated with greater emotional well-being during COVID-19, even when controlling for demographic factors like income and education (Carstensen et al., 2020). One study found that older adults rated their emotional well-being during the pandemic as high or even higher than in previous years (Kivi et al., 2021).

Thus, a question remains about why older adults are more resilient and how we can foster the same kind of resilience in younger adults. One possible explanation is that when we get older, we become more focused on emotional well-being and fostering relationships with close friends and family, while younger age is often associated with expanding social networks and gaining new knowledge (Carstensen et al., 2003). Interestingly, this increase in emotional well-being has not seemed to be impacted by the stress of the pandemic. Perhaps older adults were already equipped with strong social networks and coping skills so that they were able to handle the stress and changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic better than younger adults.   

In addition to showing that older adults are resilient, our study yielded a few other interesting results. People who reported being lonelier tended to also have lower mood and lower aging expectations. In addition, COVID-19 attitudes and prevention behaviors were not related to other measures in older adults. However, younger adults who had less serious COVID-19 attitudes reported lower mood. Although we can’t be sure exactly why this relationship is present, it can help us better understand the characteristics of younger adults who may be taking COVID-19 less seriously.

Lastly, in both age groups, males reported taking COVID-19 less seriously than females. This gender difference in attitudes toward COVID-19 has also been reported in other recent studies. For example, one study showed that females report higher intentions to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Capraro & Barcelo, 2020). Another reported that women were more likely to take COVID-19 seriously, support prevention measures, and to comply with guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 than men (Galasso et al., 2020). Again, we can’t be sure of the reasons behind this trend, but it seems imperative to understand why men, on average, are less concerned with the COVID-19 pandemic in order to improve compliance with prevention measures.

Overall, older adults have been portrayed in the media as a lonely, frail, and vulnerable population throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but older adults seem to be showing resilience, even though they take the risks of COVID-19 more seriously. Perhaps we can all take a lesson from older adults to focus on building our close social relationships and maintaining a positive outlook through difficult times.


Capraro, V., & Barcelo, H. (2020). The effect of messaging and gender on intentions to wear a face covering to slow down COVID-19 transmission. ArXiv preprint arXiv:2005.05467. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2005/2005.05467.pdf

Carstensen, L. L., Fung, H. H., & Charles, S. T. (2003). Socioemotional selectivity theory and the regulation of emotion in the second half of life. Motivation and Emotion, 27103–123. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1024569803230

Carstensen, L. L., Shavit, Y. Z., & Barnes, J. T. (2020). Age Advantages in Emotional Experience Persist Even Under Threat From the COVID-19 Pandemic. Psychological Science31(11), 1374-1385. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797620967261

Chang, E., Kannoth, S., Levy, S., Wang, S., Lee, J. E., & Levy B. R. (2020). Global reach of ageism on older persons’ health: A systematic review. PLoS One, 15(1), e0220857. https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0220857

Galasso, V., Pons, V., Profeta, P., Becher, M., Brouard, S., & Foucault, M. (2020). Gender differences in COVID-19 attitudes and behavior: Panel evidence from eight countries. PNAS, 117(44), 27285-27291. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2012520117

Garg, S. (2020). Hospitalization rates and characteristics of patients hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed coronavirus disease 2019—COVID-NET, 14 States, March 1–30, 2020. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69(15), 458–464. https://dx.doi.org/10.15585%2Fmmwr.mm6915e3

Han, J., & Richardson, V. E. (2014). The relationships among perceived discrimination, self-perceptions of aging, and depressive symptoms: A longitudinal examination of age discrimination. Aging & Mental Health, 19(8), 747–755. https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2014.962007

Kivi, M., Hansson, I., & Bjälkebring, P. (2021). Up and about: Older adults’ well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic in a Swedish longitudinal study. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B76(2), e4-e9. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbaa084

Klaiber, P., Wen, J. H., DeLongis, A., & Sin, N. L. (2021). The ups and downs of daily life during COVID-19: Age differences in affect, stress, and positive events, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 76(2), e30–e37. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbaa096

Swift, H. J., & Abrams, D., Lamont, R. A., Drury, L. (2017). The risks of ageism model: How ageism and negative attitudes toward age can be a barrier to active aging. Social Issues and Policy Review, 11(1), 195–231. https://doi.org/10.1111/sipr.12031

Whatley, M. C., Siegel, A., Schwartz, S. T., Silaj, K. M., & Castel, A. D. (2020). Younger and Older Adults’ Mood and Expectations Regarding Aging During COVID-19. Gerontology & geriatric medicine6, 2333721420960259. https://doi.org/10.1177/2333721420960259