How One Older Adult Adjusted to Living Alone During the Pandemic

Older people may be more resilient when it comes to dealing with social isolation.

Sandra Gurvis
Adults aged 60-plus fared much better mentally and physically during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to one study.

Last June, in the middle of the pandemic, I moved all by myself from Columbus to Bradenton, Florida. I’m not going to divulge my age, which hit another milestone in January. But here’s the thing: Being older and alone during a world-shattering situation is not as bad as you might think.

Geriatrician Dr. Carla Perissinotto, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco recently described the differences between loneliness and social isolation.

“Loneliness is more subjective—a feeling, an assessment that social relationships are lacking,” she says. “Social isolation is objective, as in measure of connections to family, friends or the community.”

So while I may have been physically alone during those first few weeks in my new location, I kept busy online, connecting with business associates, friends and family through social media and platforms such as Zoom. My mental landscape didn’t change much although my physical environment certainly did.

“One 85-year-old is not the same as another,” observes Paula Span, who writes the New Old Age column for The New York Times and recently addressed the topic of “Aging and Alone During COVID-19” in a webinar presented by the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism. “Some may be running marathons, while others can barely move.”

Certainly, income, access to technology and resources, and general physical and mental health are differentiating factors among the older population. “Because they have lived through and seen so much, older people are more resilient, especially when they have a sense of purpose, such as volunteering and caring for family, two things that were taken away by COVID,” says Span.

She paints a worst-case scenario of an older person in a nursing home or other institutional environment alone in a room being given boxed meals—a virtual prisoner of a COVID lockdown. Each day is the same and they rarely if ever see anyone except for gowned, masked staff. “No wonder the death rate from COVID is so high in these places and keeps increasing the longer the pandemic goes on,” continues Span.

According to a study from the University of British Columbia, younger adults had more concerns about COVID-19, while those aged 60-plus fared much better mentally and emotionally. Bottom line, it appeared the older the person, the better they felt they were coping with the pandemic.

Perissinotto also recently participated in a study that showed while technology and medical intervention are useful to older Americans, “there should be allowances for safe, in-person interaction when needed,” she says. This could range from regular, socially distanced visits with a “bubble” or pod of COVID-free family and friends to spending time with therapy animals to doing outdoor activities, even in cold weather.

As for me, I count my blessings this year. I’m following epidemiological guidelines to continue avoiding COVID-19, occasionally gather with new friends, and regularly go outside for gorgeous walks in my new natural habitat.