High Anxiety, Aging and Covid-19

By Wayne W. Clark and Woodrow W. Clark II #

“Health first”

            Several years ago, Wayne remembers that a friend stated that he did not touch gas station pump handles because he was concerned about germ transmission, at the time Wayne thought that seemed excessive. Then Wayne noticed that many people open door handles with the sleeves of their jackets, shirts or sweaters over their hands, they also are concerned about germ transmission. Being in the behavioral health field, I was drawn to the literature on obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD) and other anxiety disorders, a research literature that included examples like not touching objects, excessive washing of hands, avoiding crowds, to mention a few. Indeed, there are a number of ways to obsess about a thing, a person, event, etc. though these are all descriptions of behavior, they are not necessarily disorders.

            Now due to the coronavirus spread in the general population, the normal times have changed such that we are all expected to be responsible about touching objects, shaking hands, being in large groups, and spreading disease. Today facing a worldwide pandemic with a relatively high mortality rate, no vaccine, and no clear path to effective treatments, there is a more general sense of anxiety. Store shelves have no paper products; local pharmacies have run out of hand sanitizers; vectors of germ transmission become common table talk; social distancing has become household words, and for those with risk factors like us baby boomers, the anxiety has spread faster than the disease. Yet anxiety is a disease also, one that in extremes can lead to health and other socio-economic consequences, but in moderation can mitigate those consequences.

We are caught in several paradoxes, too much information can increase concern, too little information can lead to unsafe health practices and life-threatening consequences. For instance, maintaining social distance is a critical practice that can prevent the spread of the virus. Engaging in social interaction with others can heighten fear of crowds; fear of crowds reduces economic activity, decline in economic activity means loss of jobs, loss of investments, etc. We want to keep a balance between knowing what to do, being careful, and not panicking. In the last few weeks this has already resulted in huge declines in the stock market, the hospitality, travel, restaurant industries, and the entire consumer economy. We do not be have business as usual for a while and how we cope with this new normal is what we need to focus on. Therefore, let us try to promote activities that will prevent or at least bend the curve on this heightened anxiety while assuring the health and safety of our high-risk peers.

            The first strategy is to understand the importance of social interaction for baby boomers (and the general population). Recent studies on longevity show that persons with social connectedness benefit by living longer than those of similar age and health conditions. Overall, there needs to be a vision of a thriving interactive society which values people to people activities as essential to a full and healthy life. By sharing that vision, Boomers can identify existing social interaction structures already in place for promoting those activities, such as assisted living communities, senior community centers, social clubs and other structured social interaction activities. Certainly, each one of the existing social interaction structures will rachet down the size of those activities.

            However, these social interaction structures are not enough as they now exist. They need to be more inclusive, more expansive about the range of activities, and of course more careful about sanitary precautions for everyone. For Boomers that have reduced size face to face social outlets, such as meetings, conferences, family activities including vacations, birthdays, etc. we need to create more carefully planned and safe opportunities for those interactions. Size matters, large gatherings do not make sense, look for places with fewer than 50-25-10 people, so you limit the human to human transmission. No more hugging or even shaking hands. Instead we bow to each other, bump elbows, shoes or even our hips. Hands and especially our fingers are all too efficient in transmitting the virus.

            Gathering together face to face is not the only alternative to keeping social interaction alive while assisting us to thrive emotionally during this time. This pandemic in the 21st century is fortunate to have technology available that connects people as never before. Social media, streaming, the internet, and telecommunication did not exist in the beginning of or well into the end of the last century. Today we can find out more about what is going on from the media in real time, get the latest up to date news, and credible information. More importantly technology via social media also connects us with families, friends, colleagues, neighbors and even groups without being in face to face contact. Schools, businesses, governments, churches are all expanding their ability to communicate and congregate through the media and technology. We can see each other; talk to each other; listen to each other; advise each other; reach out to each other through our phones and the internet. We can even get food and other essentials delivered to us while staying within the confines of our own personal environment.

            We have come full circle, those who had behavioral challenges such as OCD and Social Anxiety Disorder, often labeled as disorders are now potential instructors in the new normal. They can be the teachers on how to thrive with lack of face to face contact or of how to be more careful users of sanitary practices. Our future might just benefit from this new way of schooling, conferencing, working, family contact, etc. in ways that actually increase quantity and quality of social interaction in everyday life. Hopefully this crisis will be only a temporary societal shift to social distance, quarantine and isolation, and we will return to large gatherings, or even modest size events. There are now more and more alternatives. In every crisis there is opportunity, I am sure that the tech industries are exploding with ideas on how to have schools and businesses without walls, while keeping social interaction personal, helpful, and efficient. In our next blog we will further explore opportunities boomers are discovering in this health crisis.


# Wayne W. Clark PhD contact: [email protected] and Woodrow W. Clark II, MA3 PhD contact: [email protected]