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Redefining the golden years: How older adults are finding community and connection

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults are maintaining connections and planning for a bright and adventurous future.

They say with age comes wisdom, but the resilience of older adults can’t be ignored, either. Despite their higher risk of COVID-19 complications, older adults have handled this pandemic with grace and impressive adaptability.

As workplaces adopted remote work models and schools moved to virtual learning, seniors found new hobbies, made connections in new ways, and focused on building and a sense of maintaining community. “One thing we know about the elderly is that they are survivors,” says Michelle Woodbrey, a certified dementia practitioner and certified senior advisor who co-founded 2Sisters Senior Living Advisors, a Massachusetts-based senior care referral and consulting service. “They’ve survived a lot more than most of us can comprehend.” 

COVID-19 presented challenges to living well, but many seniors remained resilient despite the difficulties.

There’s a shift taking place among older Americans, and while they must remain vigilant in taking precautionary measures to avoid COVID-19, in many cases, they are thriving.

Coping with changes and sharing wisdom

Pre-pandemic research indicated that the way we handle stress and difficult situations tends to improve as we age. With decades of life experiences, older adults perceive time differently and tend to focus on making the most of each moment. This has enabled them to, in many cases, cope with the changes brought on by a global pandemic more effectively. One study revealed that seniors are reporting more positive emotions such as appreciation, calmness, and interest, and fewer negative emotions, like anxiety, anger, and stress than younger age groups. 

“People that have lived a long life know that they can get through [difficult times]; they put everything in perspective. While most people haven’t flown through life with ease, they have an excitement about what is in front of them,” says Janet Seckel-Cerrotti, executive director of FriendshipWorks, an organization that aims to reduce social isolation, improve quality of life, and maintain the dignity of older adults in Greater Boston.

The conversation around older adults during the pandemic has focused heavily on their vulnerabilities, hiding the fact that this population has the skills and tools to thrive. Interestingly, with younger generations being more susceptible to loneliness and depression, creating opportunities for intergenerational connection has become mutually beneficial for older and younger adults during the pandemic. 

“We’ve seen an influx of volunteers ages 18 and up,” continues Seckel-Cerrotti. “Younger people are also feeling lonely and isolated, so these relationships are important for both sides. An older friend listens differently and may have more time for you. There’s a richness that you may not receive from your peer group.” 

Sandra Harris, state president of AARP Massachusetts echoes this observation. “We are moving from calling these connections ‘intergenerational’ to ‘co-generational’ to create opportunities for connection between older and younger adults,” she says. “Older adults are willing to use their wisdom and experience to work with the younger generation. It’s encouraging and inspirational.” 

Staying active and up for adventure

In addition to mental health concerns, forced isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how seniors’ mobility and physical health would be impacted. As seniors are prone to falls, being confined to their home to reduce the risk of infection could have the unintended side effect of weakening mobility. 

Staying active, even remotely can help older adults keep their physical and mental health in top shape.

While activity levels fell early on in the pandemic, a study from the Journal of Medical Internet Research uncovered something surprising — seniors had actually begun ramping up their physical exercise during the pandemic, while their younger counterparts slowed down. The study found that while, pre-pandemic, seniors had the least number of exercising minutes among other age groups, since the pandemic began, they were leading the way, averaging 100 more minutes than the next youngest age group.

Similarly, seniors have been one of the most eager groups to get back out into the world, see friends, and explore their surroundings. One poll revealed that one in three older adults were planning a long trip more than 100 miles from home in the next year. And while they are ready to pack their bags, older adults remain cautious, with 20 percent of those who are planning to travel stating they would alter plans if there was a COVID surge at or near their destination.

Staying connected, virtually and in person

For the first time in her life, Ann Schwarz, 85, of Wellesley, Mass., is living alone. Like many seniors, Schwarz has embraced technology in order to stay close with her family in times when she needs to remain physically isolated for her own health and safety. “Without technology like FaceTime, texting, Instagram, and Snapchat — I send my granddaughters ‘TGIF’ snaps every Friday! — I would truly feel alone.”

Video calling technology such as FaceTime has allowed families and friends to connect virtually.

The remarkable shift in how seniors have adopted technology has been well-documented, with one study finding that 44 percent of adults over 50 have a more positive feeling toward technology now than they did prior to the pandemic; however, this newfound appreciation for digital devices goes far beyond regular Zoom calls. 

For Schwarz, technology has enabled her to continue focusing on her passions. She participates in regular virtual poetry and Shakespeare classes that allow her to dive into her own interests while maintaining friendships with peers overseas. From virtual museum tours and college courses to online guided meditations and workout classes, technology has been a conduit to empowering older adults to keep up with hobbies, stay physically well, and connect with others. 

Still, some seniors may not have acclimated to digital communication or have access, and there is no perfect substitute for face-to-face communication. As part of AARP Massachusetts’ Taskforce to End Loneliness & Build Community, there are initiatives underway to ensure that older adults have access to spaces where they can build lasting connections. For example, the organization will soon deploy “Happy to Chat benches” in multiple neighborhoods that invite people to sit down, chat with a stranger, and develop friendships. 

Maintaining community

Senior housing and long-term care facilities have arguably been one of the hardest-hit environments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, when there was limited science and understanding about how to reduce the spread of the virus, outbreaks were difficult to contain within these facilities. However as more has been revealed about how the virus spreads, and testing and vaccines have become widely available, senior living centers have bounced back. “We’re two years into this now, and leaders of these organizations have learned how to adapt and keep residents as safe as possible,” says Woodbrey. 

Community care centers can help older adults find community and new hobbies.

As part of her work providing referrals and counsel to families considering moving a loved one into a senior living environment, Woodbrey has seen firsthand how these organizations have helped seniors thrive while managing the pandemic. “Going to a community is a positive because they are still having activities. Even at the height of COVID-19, there was ‘hallway BINGO’ and exercise classes taking place outside their door,” explains Woodbrey. This level of engagement can be hard to come by as other home care services have limited availability or rising costs. Senior living is evolving by creating healthy, fun, and engaging spaces for seniors to maintain their community, which is especially important in times when they need to be socially distanced from loved ones.

A new outlook for older adults

As we learn more about the way the virus spreads and public health guidance becomes clearer, the future is bright for older adults, who have exhibited unmatched resiliency over the past two years. “[Seniors] took what they were given and are doing the best with it,” says Woodbrey. “There’s no better generation of people to show us how it’s done — I have nothing but the greatest respect for them.”

While COVID-19 may have been a partial catalyst, this shift in behavior among older adults is likely here to stay. Above all, the pandemic has shown us that prioritizing our mental, physical, and emotional health is key and has reinforced the importance of making meaningful connections with one another. This new outlook is an exciting one, as more adults will embrace aging, continue to learn new skills, improve their mental and physical strength, and build a sense of community.

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan, as part of Point32Health’s family of companies, are committed to helping members live well at every stage of life. Learn more about Point32Health.

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This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.