According to a January 2021 Psychology Today report, while being hit the hardest during the first year of the COVID-19 breakout, research showed older Americans responded by being psychologically resilient. Some even labeled this phenomenon of older adults coping well as a unique form of “crisis competence.”
That was then. Now, “even those who adapted well initially are saying their fortitude is waning,” reports Kaiser Health News. “Despite recent signals that covid’s grip on the country may be easing, many older adults are struggling with persistent malaise … beset by uncertainty about what the future may bring.”
Bonnie Olsen is a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and works extensively with older adults. “At the beginning of the pandemic, many older adults hunkered down and used a lifetime of coping skills to get through this,” she says. “Now, as people face this current surge, it’s as if their well of emotional reserves is being depleted.”
Adds Henry Kimmel, a clinical psychologist who also works with older adults, “I’ve never seen so many people who say they’re hopeless and have nothing to look forward to.”
A 74-year-old woman interviewed by reporter Judith Graham described having a feeling of “flatness” and “being worn out” that has sapped her motivation. Graham says that many older Americans are racked with an “especially painful feeling that opportunities that will never come again are being squandered, time is running out, and death is drawing ever nearer.”
In a society so defined by ageism, where older people are so often stigmatized and marginalized, many will pay little attention to this development. Traits such as wisdom, multifaceted decision-making skills, emotional regulation skills and self-reflection are all characteristics that so often used to be attributed to a society’s elders. And even if age does not necessarily bring wisdom, it does bring experience. If the most “crisis competent” in society can’t hack it, what does that say for everyone else?
And, of course, this Kaiser Health News report was published weeks ago, before war broke out in Ukraine, plunging us all into even greater feelings of powerlessness and fear of an unknown future ahead. As pointed out in several initial follow-up news reports, war historically happened in times of destabilization, and a global pandemic certainly qualifies as such. The psychological markers that so defined the pandemic and the past two years have now been shifted into hyperdrive.
Sprinkled among the news coverage of escalating tensions and the military assault on Ukraine, very few reports have focused on how folks can deal with the feelings of stress, anxiety and fear that the overwhelming amount of news coverage has helped to stoke.
Central California news outlet keyt.com ran a CNN story on Feb. 26 featuring advice on coping with the situation featuring Chloe Carmichael, a New York-based therapist and author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.”
“There are many valid reasons why an international crisis might be hitting you close to home,” she explains. “Fortunately, there are also many things you can do to help address them … See what has worked for you during the pandemic to reduce stress and process your feelings, and try applying those de-stressing techniques now.”
“Understanding the global events can be a productive way to cope with uncertainty, but if you’re glued to every update and unable to focus on other things, you may need to set limits on how often and how long you consume information on the conflict.”
“Watch your triggers,” she warns. “Learn what hits you the hardest and take care to limit those or be gentle to yourself when you do experience them.”
“Connecting with others of your community and speaking about what you are going through is incredibly important,” says psychologist Wendy Rice.
“Non-stop stress and uncertainty leave a mark on our mental well-being,” writes Dr. Michele Nealon, president of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, in a Feb. 25 news release. “One remedy is to prioritize your normal routines — predictability helps us feel we are in control and safe. In stressful times, we spend more time worrying that something bad is going to happen and that is exhausting … It’s time to double down on what we know about taking care of ourselves.”
We should also be honest about the state of mind of this country as the current crisis has hit us. Most Americans were not just emotionally running on empty when news of the Russian siege broke but plain burned out, feeling the effects of two years filled with cynicism and negativity.
Reports Time magazine, a McKinsey & Co. study found that in 2021, 42% of U.S. women and 35% of U.S. men said they feel burned out often or almost always. Says the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, as far back as September 2020, 76% of U.S. health care workers reported exhaustion and burnout. This situation has only gotten worse, according to USA Today.
In an exclusive USA Today/Ipsos Poll conducted Feb. 9-16 of 1,170 doctors, nurses, paramedics, therapists and others, “1 in 4 report they are likely to leave the health care field, an exodus that would represent an enormous loss of medical expertise.” Half admitted they feel burned out, while younger workers report feeling significantly higher levels of stress than older caregivers.
Even more disturbing, “some warn that the health care system is ‘on the verge of collapse.’ In the poll, 39% agreed with that statement.”
Long-term care in this country was a problem area even before the pandemic. Now, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the industry is in serious deterioration. “A recent industry report estimated that nursing homes and assisted living facilities together have lost more than 250,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic,” says NPR. Workers have been quitting in record numbers. This, in turn, “is causing backups in hospitals” that are “unable to discharge patients who need long term care.”
This is all happening to our health care support system as the question of how much more can we take, and how we cope, very much remains to be seen.