Older Adults’ Attitudes & Behaviors in the COVID Era

Regi Robnett, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA & Tom Meuser, PhD, CEAH

Older adults (n = 209) responded to an online survey in late April to early July 2020. More than half were recruited from the UNE Legacy Scholars Program. Respondents were mostly female (83%), Caucasian (95%), 4-year plus college educated (81%), living in households of 1-2 individuals (87%), and financially secure (85%). Most reported their political leanings at moderate to liberal (86%). This relatively homogenous convenience sample is not representative of older adults in general.

Seriousness of the Pandemic

The vast majority of respondents (96%) agreed that COVID-19 is more serious than the common flu, and it will have major impacts on our world (94%). Most (89%) disagreed that the risks of the Coronavirus are being exaggerated. Concern about the pandemic’s uncertain duration was common in this group (92%).

The majority (76%) reported closely following news of the pandemic, favoring television (78%) and internet (64%) sources. Many praised the Maine CDC and its Director, Dr. Shah, in qualitative remarks.

Interestingly, most (88%) disagreed that the pandemic is “pitting generations against each other” and many (35%) agreed that it is “bringing out the best in people.”  Most (76%) agreed that masks should be worn by everyone when out in public to prevent virus transmission.

Personal Impact & Response

Most (89%) reported worry about loved ones contracting the disease, with slightly fewer (69%) expressing such worry about themselves. Just about all (97%) acknowledged impacts on their daily life patterns since the March “stay at home” order (see qualitative responses below), but few (14%) viewed running errands away from home as stressful.

While no one reported receiving a formal diagnosis, almost one in five (17%) expressed that they might have contracted the virus based on symptoms. A third (38%) reported knowing someone diagnosed with the virus. This latter finding may related the broad worry for others noted above.

Only half (49%) reported concern about shortages in food and other necessities due to the Pandemic, with fewer (20%) feeling any anxiety about such access.

With respect to social distancing, 74-80% agreed that they consistently stay 6’ or more away from persons not in their immediate households, including extended family, friends, neighbors and persons encountered in public places. Responses were mixed concerning use of hand sanitizers, disinfecting of surfaces in the home, and cleaning of cell phones. A third or fewer respondents reported daily efforts in these areas.

Hand washing presented a different story. Most (75%) reported daily “20 second” hand washing to prevent against transmission.

Qualitative Responses & Themes

Changes in Daily Routine

From our qualitative responses in the realm of changes in daily routine, it is obvious that the COVID pandemic has turned our daily lives upside down. Most respondents listed significant changes in their daily routine. The most frequent responses were: staying at home (51);  no more or limited shopping (35); more computer/technology use (28); not being able to visit family and friends (28); complying with orders to socially distance, wear masks, and gloves (22); more home based activities (yardwork, reading, TV, yardwork, and especially cooking, 19); decreased or no more volunteering (10). In addition, there were many other more infrequent responses such as working from home, loss of job; walking more; missing haircuts, cancelled doctor’s appointments, not being able to go to church, missing movies, concerts and plays; eating more, sleep disruption, and taking or teaching on-line courses. Only three stated that there was no impact on their daily routine, and one stated that they had “excess” time with their partner.

Social Distancing

When asked the impact of social distancing on daily life, frequent responses were that it was difficult or annoying, but absolutely necessary to curtail the spread of the virus. One wrote that the COVID pandemic is “the most intrusive community event in my lifetime.” Respondents often mentioned missing people, friends, family visits as well as hugs and touch in general. Several mentioned that the virus has caused life to be lonelier. While no one mentioned that they preferred virtual communication, a few stated being grateful that we have technology to maintain connections. A few respondents said they preferred social distancing, because it fits with their introverted personality. Only one respondent spoke out negatively about the mandate to practice social distancing. This respondent said: “social distancing has destroyed the economy and the steps taken have been inappropriate…we should have sheltered the vulnerable and carried on as usual.” The vast majority disagreed with this sentiment.

Other Thoughts

The respondents had many final comments when we asked at the end of the survey, if they had any “other thoughts to share.” These comments from 151 respondents fit into the realms of concerns/worries/confusion, negative outcomes, and perhaps surprisingly, positive outcomes of the pandemic as well. The concerns, more for others than themselves, often related to family members, finances and the economy, and the fate of marginalized populations. In addition, a primary concern for many was the political state of the country and the extreme division we are experiencing. While many were dismayed at the federal government’s response, others were grateful for the local response and healthcare providers. Expressions of positivity were far more frequent than negative comments. These related to hope for the future of the human race and the environment, perhaps best expressed by a respondent’s quote about this trying time, that it will make us a “kinder, gentler, and more compassionate people.”

Discussion

Respondents to this survey view the COVID-19 Pandemic as serious, something to be informed about, and worthy of personal action to stay safe and prevent transmission. It is reasonable to conclude that most are following evidence-based guidelines and will continue to do so.

Those sampled are not representative of the wider population, particularly in respect to lower education and socioeconomic status. Most reported being financially secure. While all experienced some impacts of the pandemic, few worried about access to food and other necessities.

These individuals had the time and ability to complete an online survey, which also sets them apart. Many are linked with UNE through our Legacy Scholars Program. If anything, this sample may reflect the attitudes of middle class seniors in urban southern Maine most of all.