What we can learn from the resilience of older adults


Key takeaways:  

  • Over the last year, studies have shown that older adults were less likely to experience pandemic-related anxiety, depression and stress.
  • Older adults have a reservoir of knowledge and skills that have helped them cope with challenges over many decades.
  • Resilience is something anyone can learn and develop over time; it’s a process, not a personality trait.


This last year has truly been a test of resilience.

Parents have had to juggle working from home, remote school and entertaining kids in quarantine. Most people have missed out on milestones and activities, postponed celebrations and settled for virtual dinners with loved ones.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created countless challenges with daily life, and it comes as no surprise that so many people are experiencing emotional and mental exhaustion. Numerous studies have shown that the pandemic has increased anxiety, depression, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for different age groups.

But what the studies have also revealed is that one population in particular — older adults — seems to be coping better with the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

“One of the most resilient groups of people is older adults,” says Maureen Nash, MD, MS, medical director, Providence ElderPlace PACE Oregon. “They have a lifetime of overcoming challenging and difficult situations and the only way to get through that is by being resilient.”

As the first installation in our new series on resilience, we spoke with Dr. Nash about developing emotional strength and the lessons we can learn from older generations.

How do you define ‘resilience’?

Dr. Nash: One common definition of resilience is “the ability to thrive during extreme challenges.” According to the American Psychological Association, it’s “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health issues or workplace and financial stressors.”

When you’re resilient, you:

  • Tolerate adverse events or their side effects
  • Have self-awareness (personal competence) that allows you to recognize your own emotions and how they affect you and those around you
  • View stressful experiences as something that can build strength
  • Accept change with a positive attitude
  • Feel that you don’t depend on your circumstances, but your decisions
  • Understand that any challenge is an opportunity for growth and learning

The good news is that anyone can develop resilience by practicing mindfulness, observing their thoughts and actions and choosing what to keep or toss away to sustain a healthy and positive mindset.

Why is resilience important?

Dr. Nash: Resilience allows us to develop the strength to process and overcome hardship, even when it’s unexpected or unavoidable (like the pandemic). People who have not developed resilience may be at a higher risk for using unhealthy coping behaviors, such as substance abuse, because they are struggling to thrive in times of extreme change.

Being resilient doesn’t protect you completely from mental health challenges, but it can help you recognize the changes in your behavior that either have a positive or negative impact.

Why do you believe older adults are good examples of resilience?

Dr. Nash: Older adults can often acknowledge the difficulties of life without losing sight of why they want to keep living. They also typically understand the need for expressing gratitude and forgiveness, as opposed to harboring past resentments, which can foster healthy aging.

As this article in Geriatric Nursing points out, resilience is a process, not a personality trait ­– it can become a practice that keeps you more grounded and calm. Older adults have had more time to learn and hone this skill over a lifetime.

How has their resilience affected how older adults cope with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Nash: Older adults have shown more resilience toward COVID-19-related anxiety, depression and stress. Despite being at a higher risk for serious health problems from the virus, older adults tend to be at a lower risk for negative mental health outcomes.

Several studies published over the last year have underlined this concept.

  • An August 2020 survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed adults aged 65 and older were less likely to have anxiety, depression, and trauma or stress-related disorder (TSRD) than people in younger age groups.
  • A study in Spain revealed that adults aged 60-80 had lower rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than adults age 40-59.
  • When asked to keep a diary about daily stressors, events, and the virus’ emotional impact, adults over age 60 more often reported positive events and emotions. The respondents included 776 adults from the U.S. and Canada.
  • A study in the Netherlands showed that, although loneliness increased during the pandemic, adults over age 65 didn’t see a big change in mental health.

How can people of all ages promote resilience?

Dr. Nash: It’s important to remember that it isn’t only about dealing with the bad things in life that builds resilience. Creating positive connections with others and nurturing relationships that can withstand conflict can also help you develop resilience.. Having people to lean on in difficult times can make a huge difference in how you cope with problems.

You can also find ways to overcome adversity by focusing on your wellbeing, by emphasizing the positive aspects of a situation and finding meaning in life. Other strategies for reinforcing resilience include:

  • Practicing Tai Chi, yoga or meditation
  • Developing mindfulness skills
  • Creating a physical exercise routine
  • Learning coping skills that can help you adapt to stress, overcome trauma or deal with anxiety

Remember that the road to resilience may involve a considerable amount of emotional distress. With that in mind, here are a few pieces of advice:

  • Make healthy connections with others — mindful, trusted and intimate relationships can boost your levels of happiness and improve your immune system.
  • Avoid seeing crises as impossible problems and accept that change is a part of life.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery. Journaling and meditation can reveal aspects about yourself, like your strengths and opportunities for growth.
  • Nurture a positive view of yourself and spend time with others who share that view. Daily affirmations can help.
  • Keep things in perspective when facing challenges and if you feel overwhelmed, reach out to others.
  • Be proactive and take care of yourself physically, mentally and spiritually.

Need more advice on resilience? Build relationships with older adults

Remember that older adults have a reservoir of knowledge and skills that have helped them cope with the challenges that they faced over many decades. Deepen the relationships with your parents, grandparents, family friends or mentors to enhance your knowledge and build a stronger bond. You can do that by listening actively and staying engaged and present.

“Sometimes people view older adults as weaker, rather than survivors who know how to thrive,” Dr. Nash says. “In the best of worlds, we would develop age-friendly communities where older adults have the opportunity to share their experiences with younger generations without the stigma and stereotypes.”


Find a doctor

Whether you need help with a health condition, mental health challenge or advice on building resilience, Providence is here to support you. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory or search for one in your area:






How do you build #resilience in your daily life? Share your advice with us at @providence.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's advice.

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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