The emotional toll of the coronavirus pandemic is steep for most everyone, but it turns out that one group is handling it better than the rest: retirees.
That might seem counterintuitive, since the virus is more dangerous for older people, but studies looking at mental health in the pandemic show that retirees who live at home are free from two of the stressors that are squeezing their younger counterparts – job security and parenting children as they navigate at-home learning and isolation.
“My life hasn’t changed all that much,” said Claine Tanner, 71, a retired banker who lives in Hurricane, Utah.
Tanner, who teaches part time at a boys school to supplement his Social Security income, said the biggest changes in his life since the pandemic hit are not being able to go to church on Sundays, and observing the social distancing measures the school put in place.
Younger generations are feeling angst from the pandemic more acutely.
According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, younger adults are among those who have “experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation” during the pandemic.
People who were already juggling day care or raising children while simultaneously establishing careers have had their lives upended on nearly every front. Many now work at home while also tending to their children, or send their kids to day care while hand-wringing about the safety of it. Young people without children often feel they are bearing the burden of extra assignments from work to pick up the slack.
The CDC study found that 46 percent of people ages 18 to 24 report experiencing pandemic-related “anxiety and stress disorder.” That number dropped steadily as people age, with just 9 percent of people 65 and older reporting pandemic-related despair.
Another study, this one from the financial services company Edward Jones and think tank AgeWave, surveyed more than 9,000 people across the United States and Canada and found that 39 percent of the “silent generation” – those age 75 or older – and 33 percent of boomers reported that they were faring “very well,” when asked how they were coping emotionally during the pandemic. That number decreased to 29 percent for Generation X and to 26 percent for millennials.
On the other end of the spectrum, 24 percent of millennials (ages 24-39) answered the same question that they were “not well,” compared with 15 percent for Gen-Xers (ages 40-55) and boomers (ages 56-74). Only 5 percent of the silent generation said they weren’t faring well.
“Most retirees are no longer worried about losing their job or helping their schoolkids cope with learning from home,” said Ken Dychtwald, president and CEO of AgeWave. “Pre-retirees, on the other hand, are getting the wind knocked out of them right now.”
On social media, comments such as “exhausted,” “overwhelmed,” “depressed,” and “pushed over the edge,” came from a group of 20-something to 40-something men and women in response to how they were holding up.
“I’ve been working through severe depression that I’ve never experienced before now,” said Kimberly Jones, 32, a mother of three in Spanish Fork, Utah, who now works from her home for a paint and glass company.
She said the pressure of her husband losing his job and her young children being mostly homebound caused her to be “put on suicide watch.”
Another woman, Patti Johnston, 37, a stay-at-home mother of three in Idaho Falls, Idaho, said her alopecia recently flared up from anxiety. “I ended up losing about 2/3 of my hair,” she said.
The enormous caveat, of course, is that older people in assisted-living facilities are under the most stress of all.
“For those living in nursing homes and similar situations, it’s been a terrible nightmare,” Dychtwald said. “Older generations are definitely feeling vulnerable because of the likelihood of contagion and its serious consequences.”
Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, said the fear of getting sick is a stress factor for younger and middle-aged adults as well, “but for some that may be more abstract” than many of the more practical day-to-day challenges of paying bills, working and tending to children.
A study from the University of British Columbia found that among its 776 participants, younger adults were struggling more from the pandemic, in part, because they were in a time in their lives with more responsibilities.
“Younger and middle-aged adults were more concerned about their finances, losing their job, and not reaching an important goal,” said Patrick Klaiber, one of the researchers who worked on that study.
Erin Berman, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, said her findings about pandemic stress were similarly based in part on age. She emphasized that “younger generations may also be experiencing a larger number of stressors at one time.”
“Anxiety often finds its fuel in uncertainty and this is very true during these uncertain times,” she said, adding that, “it may be possible that older adults are more accustomed to dealing with uncertainty, and getting used to uncertainty does help people learn how to cope.”
In fact, Tanner, the retired banker, said he has the benefit of life experience to rely on.
“I’ve survived recessions and depressions and the polio pandemic that took the life of two of my cousins and partially crippled my sister,” Tanner said.
Elena Man, a pediatrician in Brooklyn, N.Y., said in addition to less life experience, young and middle-aged adults now often find themselves stalled as they are trying to establish themselves.
“This stage of life usually includes developing crucial components of identity, financial and living independence, professional and social connections, and the pursuit of individual interests and passions,” Man said. “Instead, these critical steps that bring importance and meaning to life at that age have been disrupted.”
She suggested that parents seek professional help if they or their kids are struggling. “One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that effective mental health help is now more widely available virtually,” she said.
Koenen, the professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, suggested one way millennials and Gen-Xers can better cope with feeling overwhelmed.
“Acknowledge none of this is normal,” Koenen said. “We are in a global pandemic. Calibrate expectations to be realistic to your situation. If you’re juggling too much, relaxing some of your rules might make things more manageable.”
Klaiber, who worked on the University of British Columbia study, said younger generations can learn from their older counterparts, many of whom are taking time to Zoom with old friends and spend time outdoors.
“Older adults, for example, were more likely to spend time in nature or to create positive social interactions remotely,” he said.
Berman addressed the benefits of unplugging from time to time if possible, even if it seems like an impossibility with all of the responsibilities on their shoulders.
“Don’t forget that it’s also important to find times when you can shut down the computer and put away the phone,” she said. “Immerse yourself in a hobby, do whatever it is that allows you to rest and recharge.”
Dylan Gee, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, suggests other anxiety-reducing habits for young adults that might seem obvious, but make a big difference, including exercise, maintaining a consistent schedule and getting adequate sleep.
Above all, Gee advises that people not be too hard on themselves – regardless of which generation they’re a part of.
“Nobody is going to be at their best during a global pandemic. Just acknowledging this fact can be helpful and validating. We need to be compassionate with ourselves.”