The perspective gained from simply living life has given seniors the tools they need to continue navigating the global coronavirus pandemic, according to UCLA experts on aging. That’s because when older adults take a moment to reflect, they can draw strength from previous life experiences.
“There’s a good chance you’ve lived through the worst,” said Steven Wallace, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and an associate director at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “Not necessarily a pandemic but at other times there was a death in the family, or a divorce, or you lost your job, or other things that were painful and you made it through.”
“It provides a level of resilience that younger people don’t have,” Wallace added. “That’s in part why older adults love to talk to young people. ‘Let me tell you about the time that x happened. Let me share my life with you.’
Wallace was drawn to studying aging after spending time with his grandparents as a young adult. He fondly recalls their love and engaging personalities but will never forget what it was like to watch them struggle with health issues related to strokes and breast cancer. Those experiences led him to study aging and think about what he could do to improve the lives of future generations.
“Social isolation has increased among older adults nationally,” Wallace said. “As you grow older… your kids move away, they get jobs.”
In the Black community, Wallace said he understands why many seniors have chosen to isolate themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. “(COVID-19 related) deaths are more common among African-Americans and Latinos (in Los Angeles County)… It’s a rational response of staying home and staying well.”
However, researchers have found being alone can be just as harmful. It’s important to stay connected.
“Both being and feeling socially isolated, there’s the fact of it and the worry about it, when the two combine that has the same health effects as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, in terms of longevity,” Wallace shared.
That’s why he suggests that seniors do everything they can to stay connected to friends and family. Weekly check-in phone calls, video calls and writing letters are great ways to keep in touch with loved ones, yet follow “physical distancing” protocols.
“Anyway you can maintain contact with other people is really important,” Wallace explained.
Meanwhile, experts on aging are encouraging young people to check in with older friends and family on at the very least, a weekly basis. “When you reach that age yourself, you’ll say, ‘Grandma had some great tips’, I wish I had listened to her.”
As winter approaches, Wallace said it is important for seniors to have interpersonal relationships, while continuing to wear face coverings, practice physical distancing and avoid large crowds.
If you can’t survive the holidays without seeing children or grandchildren, Wallace is encouraging people to have small, in-person, intergenerational gatherings outside. That’s a benefit of mild winter weather in Southern California that others across the country may be less likely to implement.
“Do what gives you pleasure and purpose in life. Reading, walking, whatever it is, as long as it does not involve a lot of people in an enclosed space,” Wallace concluded.