“How will we remember this pandemic?” asked Susan McFadden, PhD, Professor Emerita of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. “And how will we act on the lessons we have learned?”
She was speaking to UW–Madison students and community members about the suffering and resilience of older people in response to COVID-19.
McFadden’s career includes scholarly work on religion, spirituality, and aging; as well as community initiatives to support people living with dementia and their family caregivers. Her analysis of COVID-19 is informed by her expertise as a gerontologist and by a project she collaborated on twenty years ago.
“In the early 2000s, a colleague of mine teaching virology at UW Oshkosh approached me,” she said. “We researched how the 1918 pandemic affected people in Winnebago and Outagamie counties, in Northeast Wisconsin. That was how I first heard about the 1918 pandemic. I never learned about it in history class. It had been forgotten.”
McFadden showed examples of what could have been learned.
“The Oshkosh newspaper in October of 1918 was telling people to avoid all public gatherings and crowded street cars,” she said. “At the very bottom you can see this: ‘Do not let your neighbors prescribe for you and do not use quack medicines.’”
“This other newspaper article talks about physicians getting together and deciding whether they needed to close churches and schools, et cetera. They hadn’t come to a decision yet but look at what is in all caps: ‘Opinion is divided.’ Does that sound familiar?”
“This was 1918,” stressed McFadden. “Did we learn anything? Did we remember anything?”
More than 1.1 million people in the United States have died from COVID-19 as of June 2023, according to the CDC. Nearly 76 percent of COVID deaths have been among people aged 65 and older, though older adults represent only 16.5 percent of the U.S. population.
“There’s been lots of suffering. I bet nearly everyone knows at least one person who died of COVID,” McFadden said. “And we’ve seen physical suffering, certainly for people who have long COVID.”
Yet the suffering wasn’t—and isn’t—only physical.
“We couldn’t have social gatherings,” said McFadden. “You’ve probably read about the increase in anxiety and depression across the life span. We’re seeing this in children, adolescents, college students, up to older adults.”
“Many nonprofits in our communities rely on wonderful older adult volunteers,” she added. “They volunteer at food pantries, or tutoring kids in reading or math. In March 2020, that source of meaning and purpose in their lives suddenly disappeared.”
One definition of suffering is “a felt loss of meaning and purpose in life,” noted McFadden.
While the suffering from COVID-19 was widespread, it impacted some people much more than others. People of color were two to three times more likely to die than white people. People with fewer resources were less likely to have remote work options. People living with dementia were more isolated and less able to use technology to meet their social and health needs.
It’s not too late to improve care and social supports based on our COVID-19 experiences, according to McFadden.
“We certainly have learned that we need to address the whole person,” she said. “I’m focusing on elders, but I really mean for all of us.”
For McFadden, addressing the whole person means fostering connections to community, attending to religious and spiritual needs, and encouraging engagement with the arts and nature. These types of connections helped many people get through the lockdowns early in the pandemic.
Despite facing more serious complications from COVID-19, older people showed more resilience.
“There was a lot of research about older adult resilience in the pandemic,” said McFadden. “Older people were more optimistic, more able to manage negative emotions and to put negative emotions into context. They experienced less stress than younger and middle-aged adults.”
“Resilience is sometimes described as the bounce back from some kind of adversity or suffering. But it also involves being able to sustain that,” she said. “And there might be some kind of growth as a result of what you’ve been through.”