For Many, Holiday Joy Is Shadowed by COVID Fears: Poll

Stress about the COVID-19 pandemic may be eclipsing holiday joy for many older Americans, a new poll reveals.

About half (47%) of 50- to 80-year-olds polled reported a mixed experience of joy and stress.

One in five said they feel a lot of stress, while 38% said they have little to none. Those between 50 and 65 years of age were nearly twice as likely as older respondents to report a lot of stress (25% versus 13%).

About 17% of older adults said they feel little or no joy these days, but 53% said they feel some and 30% said they are feeling a lot of joy.

“The clear differences in ability to find joy during these times, and in experiences of stress, based on health status, shows the importance of focusing on those in poor health,” said Lindsay Kobayashi, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, in Ann Arbor. “But for all older adults, we know that alterations in daily life impact emotional and mental health, so finding safe ways to enjoy favorite activities is important.”

Stress levels were highest among respondents who rated either their physical and mental health as fair or poor (37% and 62%, respectively), and among those with the lowest incomes (26%), the findings showed.

When they considered going into a crowded indoor space, the possibility of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 triggered stress for 58% of respondents. Twenty-seven percent felt stress just thinking about leaving their house, according to the new National Poll on Healthy Aging.

The poll is based at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center.

The researchers said the findings show the need to provide clear public health messaging about local COVID-19 risk levels for different activities and about specific steps older adults can take to reduce their risk.

The poll was conducted in August, before booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines became widely available for older adults. That’s now changed and could help reduce stress, said poll director Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease physician with training in geriatrics, the diseases of old age.

“Older adults, and all of us, need to find that balance between protecting ourselves and being overly hesitant to engage in activities that can bring us the kind of joy that supports our physical and emotional well-being,” she said in a university news release.

“This poll shows this may be especially important for those who have developed a stress-based response to activities that once were indeed very risky before vaccines, boosters and increased access to rapid testing, but now can be safely navigated by most people,” Malani added.

This includes small gatherings of fully vaccinated people or attending events with vaccination, testing and requirements for masks, she explained.

Major sources of joy cited by the respondents were: being outdoors (87%); physical activity (72%); hobbies or projects (72%); being alone (58%); and pets (56%). Also commonly cited as providing joy were relationships with friends (80%); children (70%); spouses or partners (64%); and co-workers (61%).

The poll was conducted online and by phone in August among 2,110 older adults.

More information

AARP offers tips for coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, Dec. 14, 2021