York research examines aging and feeling valued versus expendable during COVID-19

An elderly man at a window

Isolation prescribed to stop the spread of COVID-19 is not only adding to the stress and distress of older people, but events related to the pandemic are reinforcing ageism, say researchers at York University.

Gordon Flett
Gordon Flett

A new commentary and review led by York University psychology Professor Gordon Flett, sparked in part by accounts of terrible conditions in long-term care homes, examines the importance of treating older people in ways that enhance their sense of mattering rather than making them feel expendable. Protective factors such as mattering are vitally important given evidence that levels of suicidality among the elderly have exponentially increased during the pandemic.

The review is the first comprehensive and contemporary review of mattering among older adults and looks at how it protects their mental and physical health and shields them from loneliness. Researchers conducted a systematic search using multiple search engines, including Google Scholar, to identify any relevant research conducted on mattering among older people.

“Those older people who are able to retain a sense of mattering in the pandemic should be doing better than those who have not been able to do so,” says Flett, lead author of the review and Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health. “These individuals will benefit enormously from interactions and interventions that make them feel valued but conditions that promote feelings of not mattering can add to feelings of loneliness and undermine their health and well-being, especially during the pandemic.”

Researchers say mattering is highly predictive in terms of protecting the mental and physical health of older adults. By highlighting specific investigations in the review, researchers explain why mattering protects older people from loneliness and social disconnection. One of the key themes emerging from the research review and from that of other investigators, says Flett, is that given the risks that face vulnerable older people, it is vitally important to promote positive protective factors and competencies that heighten their resilience and engagement. Current events that convey a sense of being expendable and unimportant have added to the urgency of the issue of mattering among seniors, according to the research.

“The crisis in long-term care homes has highlighted a lack of resources and planning which have left too many older people and staff members in vulnerable and potentially life-threatening situations,” says Flett. “What is also being missed is the opportunity to learn and benefit from the survival resources and resiliency factors cultivated by older adults who have lived through times of war, oppression, discrimination and financial collapse.”

Flett and co-author Marnin J. Heisel, a former PhD student in Flett’s lab, outline ways to modify existing interventions and suggest key directions for future research. They also describe “the Clarence Challenge,” which is based on the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. The Clarence Challenge was developed in their own work to have retiring men generate ways in which their lives matter to the people around them, their community, and to themselves.

Flett is director of the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research at York University where he specializes in the role of personality factors in depression, health problems, and interpersonal adjustment. His research adopts a lifespan perspective, studying the role of personality in health and mental health in children, adolescents, middle-aged individuals, and the elderly. Heisel and Flett have created the first measure to assess suicide ideation among the elderly.

Aging and Feeling Valued Versus Expendable During The Covid-19 Pandemic and Beyond:  A Review and Commentary of Why Mattering is Fundamental to the Health and Well-Being of Older Adultswas published in The International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.