The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an immediate threat to individuals’ health, while disturbing and restricting individuals’ daily lives. Extant research indicates that older adults should be considered as a very heterogeneous group, with some older adults reporting decreased well-being or even increased psychological distress (Miller 2020) and others experiencing similar or higher levels of well-being during this pandemic (Kivi et al. 2020) compared to before the pandemic. The overall aim of this study was, therefore, to examine what factors increase or threaten older adults’ ability to adapt to this crisis. In doing so, we sought for a cross-fertilization between two well-established theories of human development, namely Erikson’s personality theory and self-determination theory.
Previous studies have consistently shown the benefits of ego integrity for older adults’ psychological functioning. Few studies, however, focused on the unique role of despair, often creating a composite score of ego integrity versus despair. Herein, we considered ego integrity as a source of resilience and despair as a vulnerability factor to “enter” the COVID-19 outbreak. Current findings confirm the separate contributions of ego integrity and despair, with both ego integrity and despair uniquely relating to life satisfaction, vitality, depressive symptoms, and anxiety symptoms, yet in opposite ways. Note, however, that only despair related to loneliness. Interestingly, effects of despair were somewhat stronger than the effects of ego integrity. Perhaps despairing over one’s past life is especially detrimental during stressful times of social isolation, where reassurance from others is not always available and people might end up ruminating excessively over personal regrets.
Despite studies showing the importance of ego integrity and despair for older adults’ psychological functioning, less is known about the underlying mechanisms behind these relations. In line with SDT and with previous studies showing ego integrity to be related to more indirect measures of need-based experiences (e.g., James and Zarrett 2006), we found that the effects of ego integrity and despair on well-being and psychological distress were partially mediated by the experience of need satisfaction (although three direct effects of ego integrity remained significant). This indicates that when older adults are able to come to terms with their past, they experience more need satisfaction during more difficult moments, as those encountered during the COVID-19 crisis. Presumably, those who have already achieved a sense of ego integrity experience greater need satisfaction from their current activities, either because they may self-select themselves into more need-satisfying activities, because they perceive situations in a more positive, need-conducive light, or because they may elicit more need-supportive responses from those around them. When focusing specifically on the satisfaction of each of the three needs, the relations from ego integrity and despair to individuals’ need satisfaction were largely replicated (with the exception of a nonsignificant relation between ego integrity and relatedness). However, the relations between need satisfaction and the outcomes were found to be more need-specific, with for instance only competence satisfaction being related to depressive symptoms. As the items concerning need satisfaction and reversed need frustration were shown to load on one factor and because of the high correlations between the satisfaction of each of the three needs, the current need-specific findings should be interpreted with caution. Satisfaction of one need (e.g., competence) often goes hand-in-hand with another need’s satisfaction (e.g., autonomy). Looking at unique effects of each need disregards, therefore, an essential part of the experience of need satisfaction. Further, given that our assessment of need-based experiences focused on momentary feelings, a high correlation between each of the needs is very likely. That is, although individuals can in general state that they experience a high level of autonomy satisfaction (e.g., in their job) and a low level of relatedness (e.g., in their romantic relationship), experiencing such a discrepancy between the satisfaction of different needs at one specific moment is more rare. More research on possible sources of discrepancies between different needs satisfaction (for instance, by using a person-centered perspective; Tóth-Király et al. 2020) is, however, needed to shed more light on this issue.
Another aim of this study was to examine what factors might put older adults more at risk for maladaptive functioning during the COVID-19 crisis, or, in contrast, what factors could foster a more adaptive functioning during these challenging times. Specifically, we focused on the role of age, gender, marital status, education level, number of children, number of grandchildren, perceived income, sum of the medical conditions, and sum of means of communications, thereby examining both their main effects on (mal) adaptation and their possible moderating role. We found that having a higher perceived income, being male, having more grandchildren, and not being widowed, single or divorced were protective factors, relating to a higher level of well-being and a lower level of psychological distress. These results are in line with previous studies showing the positive effects of income (Lukaschek et al. 2017), being a grandparent and male (Tanskanen et al. 2019), and being in a romantic partnership (Carr and Springer 2010) on older adults’ well-being. Surprisingly, although previous studies among older adults have shown age (e.g., Hansen 2020) and poor health (e.g., Steptoe et al. 2015) to be negatively related to psychological functioning, and education to be positively related to psychological functioning (e.g., Wiesmann and Hannich 2008), our main findings showed no such effects. The lack of effects of age and health could be due to the rather limited number of very old individuals (aged over 80) and of individuals with significant poor health in the current sample. Further, the current findings also seem to indicate that psychological factors such as need satisfaction, ego integrity, and despair are more important predictors of individuals’ psychological functioning than merely their age, health condition, or educational level. For future studies, it would also be interesting to examine the possible intervening role of these psychological factors in the relation from, for instance, health condition to well-being. To illustrate, individuals with a poor health are likely to experience more difficulties in maintaining their relationships (i.e., need for relatedness), experiencing choice and freedom in daily life (i.e., need for autonomy), and in accomplishing personal goals (i.e., need for competence), resulting in less experienced well-being.
Interestingly, we also found that older adults who used more different means of communication (e.g., phone calls, electronic communication such as text messages, and virtual communication including Skype or WhatsApp) reported a lower level of loneliness. The use of different communication means is especially important in old age, as older adults often face increasingly communication problems due to, for instance, cognitive decline or decreasing physical health. For instance, a large survey among adults aged 65 years or more showed that 42% reported hearing problems, 26% had writing problems, and 7% had problems using the telephone (Hoffman et al. 2005). Current findings seem to indicate that older adults who are more able to adapt their means of communication to their communication capabilities and needs thrive more, although more research on this issue is needed. Further, we found little evidence for the moderating role of these assessed factors, with only one interaction being significant. That is, participants who reported a higher level of medical conditions were more affected by need satisfaction, reporting lower vitality when experiencing low need satisfaction and higher vitality when experiencing high need satisfaction. It is important to note, however, that this interaction effect was rather weak (explaining no additional variance in vitality) and only indicated a difference in strength of this relation, with the main effect of need satisfaction on vitality being significant across all participants (irrespective of level of medical conditions).
Limitations and future challenges
This study had several important strengths, including the assessment of older adults’ well-being in a historical time period (i.e., the COVID-19 pandemic), the use of a large sample, including indicators of both adaptive and maladaptive psychological functioning, and the cross-fertilization of two well-established theories on human development (i.e., Erikson’s personality theory and SDT). Nonetheless, the study also had a number of important limitations.
First, this study used a cross-sectional design, thereby precluding the examination of possible reciprocal effects between, for instance, despair and psychological distress. It could be the case that current negative feelings invoke more despair and regret over the past due to making negative memories from the past more salient. Future research employing more dynamic designs (e.g., longitudinal, diary) would be crucial in gaining more insight into these possible reciprocal associations. Relatedly, our study did not include a pre-COVID-19 assessment, thereby limiting the examination of possible changes in the study constructs due to this pandemic.
On a methodological level, this study was limited by the use of single items for two of the outcomes (i.e., life satisfaction and vitality) and the employment of self-reports, which can cause same-source bias, shared method variance, and retrospective bias. Although the use of self-reports for the processes of ego integrity, despair, and need-based experiences is justifiable given the highly internal nature of these constructs, it would be informative to also have other informants report on the older adult’s psychological functioning in future studies. Further, in line with other studies done in the context of COVID-19 (Losada-Baltar et al. 2020), our sample consisted of older adults who were able to use online technologies which may limit the generalizability of our sample. Indeed, research has shown that respondents who prefer to use a paper (instead of online) questionnaire, were more likely to be female, retired, single, and to report a lower level of education, higher levels of depression and lower self-reported health (Kelfve et al. 2020). Additionally, although we examined a broad set of potential risk and protective factors, there could be other factors that might be important in understanding older adults’ coping with the COVID-19 pandemic including for instance religious affiliation, ethnicity, or geographical location.
Almost all participants included in this study lived at home, restricting the generalizability of the current findings. As stated by Gardner et al. (2020), older adults living in care facilities during this crisis have an increased risk to experience social isolation and potentially even abuse and neglect compared with older adults living at home. Previous research stemming from before the pandemic has also shown older adults residing in hostels (instead of self-care apartments) to experience less ego integrity (assessed as the degree of accepting the past) (Rylands and Rickwood 2001). It would therefore be important to replicate the current findings also among older populations living in care facilities.