Social & Behavioral Science Spotlight – Kerstin Gerst Emerson

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Social & Behavioral Science Spotlight – Kerstin Gerst Emerson

Kerstin Gerst Emerson, PhD
OIBR Grantsmanship Development Program, Class of 2021
Clinical Associate Professor, Health Policy & Management,
Institute of Gerontology
Topic: How are older adults coping with the COVID-19 restrictions?

In March and April Dr. Kerstin Gerst Emerson sent out a survey to adults aged 60 and older, asking them how they are handling the CDC recommendations to shelter in place caused by the COVID-19 restrictions. The survey was intended as an initial glimpse into how people are feeling now and how are they coping emotionally, especially their level of loneliness and stress. Dr. Emerson also wanted to see what people are doing to cope, and see if there are any behavioral changes. Some behavioral changes might actually be healthy (having more time to exercise, for example), but of course some might be less healthy (for example taking up drinking or smoking).  She also asked how people are communicating and staying in touch. We often assume older adults don’t use technology, but of course many of them do.

“It’s important to know about their mental health, especially loneliness, since many older adults were already at risk for loneliness before the pandemic. And even those who may not have been lonely before may be at high risk now, with many of their usual social activities being cut off. So even socially active people may now be struggling without being able to meet friends, go to church, go shopping, and attend group exercise classes,” said Dr. Emerson.

Some preliminary data shows older adults are very much struggling with loneliness and stress, though some appear to be resilient and managing well with restrictions in social activities. Many of the respondents said they were communicating using technology, with a large portion using social media and video calls to connect with others.

Researchers have known for a long time that loneliness is bad for your health. And while sheltering in place and social distancing is absolutely the right public health thing to do during this pandemic, Dr. Emerson worries about the secondary effects on older adults.

Her hope is to use this information as pilot data for a grant. She would like to do a nationally representative survey of older adults next, and track them across time. Especially as many states are lifting restrictions, she’d like to see how lifting the restrictions changes older adults’ loneliness, stress, and coping mechanisms.

The first results are under journal review, and the qualitative portion is being analyzed this summer.  

Kerstin Gerst Emerson