Illustration of a man carrying a large clear backpack full of items like barbells, carrots, an apple, a bar of soap, and a box of tissues.
Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

T he past few months have been scary and challenging, especially for older adults, who are more susceptible to life-threatening complications from COVID-19. But sheltering in place has given us a chance to learn better strategies for infection protection, to cook at home more often, and even to check in with physicians more frequently via telemedicine, says James Lai, M.D., a geriatrician at the Yale School of Medicine.

“It’s also been a time of deep gratitude and reflection,” says Bruce Rabin, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of pathology, psychology, and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Older adults are turning inward more to find contentment and beauty in day-to-day life. We appreciate things like family and friends even more now.”

Though we don’t know exactly what the next few months will bring in terms of the coronavirus, what we’ve learned may help us with whatever comes.

We Keep Germs at Bay

Learning proper hand-washing can help prevent up to 40 percent of diarrhea-related illnesses and up to 21 percent of respiratory infections (like COVID-19), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More on the Coronavirus

And thanks to frequent reminders from the CDC and other groups, we’ve learned to do it often and well: lathering soap all over our wet hands, including the backs, between fingers, and under nails, for at least 20 seconds, then rinsing and drying them with a clean towel.

We’ve also embraced infection-control habits such as avoiding sick people if possible, always having tissues handy, and tossing those tissues right away after coughing or sneezing into them, Lai says.

“I’m amazed. People ask me to wash my hands when I come into [their] home all the time,” notes Dwayne Dobschuetz, M.S.N., R.N., an advanced practice nurse in geriatrics home care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. His patients also tell him they disinfect their countertops and doorknobs daily.

We 'See' Our Docs in New Ways

In March, with many medical offices closed and hospitals and urgent care centers overburdened, Medicare and some private insurers expanded their coverage of telemedicine.

While virtual healthcare isn’t appropriate for everything or everyone, evidence suggests that it can play an important role for older adults.

And research points to high satisfaction levels. A 2019 study by Massachusetts General Hospital published in The American Journal of Managed Care involving 254 patients found that about 75 percent rated a telehealth consult as good or better than an in-person visit.

“Usually, it’s hard for a senior to get their doctor on the phone,” Dobschuetz says. “With a televisit, they get a doctor’s undivided attention for 20 to 30 minutes.”

Some doctors also notice the benefits. “With telemedicine, we can ‘see’ more patients,” says Nisha Rughwani, M.D., an associate professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “We need to allow time between in-person visits to thoroughly clean and disinfect a room, [so we] cannot have the same volume we previously did.”

We Eat a Bit Better

We’ve begun eating at home most of the time because of the pandemic, and a survey of 1,005 people by Hunter, a marketing firm, found that 54 percent of Americans have also been cooking more. A January 2020 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition suggests that people who cook and eat at home tend to have healthier diets.

The Hunter survey also found that 57 percent of Americans said they were wasting less food during the pandemic, and that 60 percent reported searching for recipes that use ingredients they already had on hand.

“The hope is that even as restaurants gradually open up,” Rabin said, “people will continue to cook at home because it’s less expensive, healthier, and also relaxing.”

We're Safely Social

Social isolation is a major risk factor for dementia, says Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center.

But when we can’t see people in person, technology can help. A 2019 study in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that older adults who use tools like Skype have a significantly lower risk of depression than others.

“Most of the seniors I see were already isolated before the pandemic, but now it’s really encouraged them to embrace technology and not be afraid,” Dobschuetz says. For example, one of his patients plays games with his adult children on Zoom each Tuesday and with friends on other days.

If you aren’t getting out much, try doing virtual activities with friends at least two or three times a week.

Keep your brain active, whether it’s reading a daily newspaper or doing more social pastimes, such as joining a virtual book club or playing board games.

A 2018 study in JAMA Psychiatry of more than 15,000 older adults found that those who participated in daily intellectual activities like card games had a lower risk of dementia. “They all allow you to think critically and interact with others,” Small says.

Mahjong, which can be played with others online, is a great option, Small adds. In fact, a March 2020 study in Frontiers in Neurology found that people over 65 who played mahjong three times a week for 12 weeks showed improvements in executive function compared with a control group.

The Advantages of Age

Just as fine wine improves over the years, the ability to weather difficulties grows stronger with time. Going through life’s crises may help us become more resilient and patient, says Rabin. "These attributes are like muscles. They become stronger the more you use them,” he adds.

Gratitude helps, too. A 2019 review in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that the attitude was consistently higher in older adults. This may help explain the outpouring of support that essential frontline workers have received from seniors.

"I’ve been blown away by the level of appreciation I’ve seen from my patients, the emails and phone calls I’ve gotten thanking me for being there for them,” Rughwani says.

And this attitude may have health benefits. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that women who kept a “gratitude journal” for two weeks reported better moods and sleep, and had lower blood pressure than others.

Editor's Note: A version of this article also appeared in the August 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health