CENIE · 18 May 2020

Boredom in older people in times of coronavirus

Social isolation and mobility restrictions as measures to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, known by all as COVID-19 or coronavirus, come with a side effect, also known by all and especially by the elderly; I am referring to boredom. Our experience of everyday life has changed completely since the alarm was sounded about the pandemic we are currently witnessing. For many people, routines have disappeared and been replaced by a great deal of free time. The usual entertainment has disappeared and the resulting disorientation has left behind a trail of complaints about boredom that has been echoed by the media and networks. However, boredom has not affected us all equally: the abrupt maladjustment we have encountered by restricting our freedom of mobility has been more severe for some than for others. How has it affected older people?

Boredom appears when we find ourselves in an environment where circumstances are predictable, difficult to avoid and repeat themselves to the point where the situation seems to be worthless, as described by my friend Peter Toohey from the University of Calgary on Boredom. A Lively History (2011). Thus, boredom only disappears once changes are made to the context. This has been called exogenous boredom or situation-dependent boredom. In reality, it is nothing more than "a state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction that is attributed to a poor stimulating environment", as recognized long ago by boredom experts William Mikulas and Stephen Vodanovich in "The Essence of Boredom" (1993). Boredom, so understood, is a psychological state of dissatisfaction, frustration or negativity that is experienced as levels of cortical excitement drop during the experience of uninteresting, monotonous or repetitive situations. 

Many factors are decisive when it comes to understanding how boredom affects us, including socio-economic and demographic factors such as age, purchasing power, place of residence and the characteristics of the home itself, the work sector to which one belongs, cultural level and even gender, to mention a few. But also unavoidable factors are those related to the field of health, such as being or not being in a risk group, having previous pathologies and one's own personality and psychological traits that make us unique, including a predisposition to boredom (boredom proneness). This is why everyone experiences boredom differently in the different situations they face in their daily lives.

When we refer to the elderly, it seems that, as the years go by, the need for cortical excitement, translated into the desire to be constantly immersed in meaningful activities, is reduced in favor of a preference for slower and more monotonous life rhythms, which many would agree in calling boredom. It could be thought, then, that the older people live with no major problem with free time, with inactivity and with boredom. However, this assumption does not always have to coincide with reality. 

It is often the socio-economic or psychological factors we were talking about a moment ago that limit the possibilities of seeking and enjoying this excitement in older people who, far from the stereotype, still have a great desire to live. The experience of boredom, in this sense, is presented as a direct consequence of these limitations when the elderly are prevented, for various reasons, from being active. We are talking, for example, about the lack of economic resources, social exclusion, physical and mental health problems and, of course, the isolation and reduced mobility that, in the current pandemic situation, are increasing for this very heterogeneous age group. So, are the elderly more or less bored than they were before the confinement? It depends, as it does for the rest of the older population, on each person and their circumstances; but the elderly have an added handicap.

Enrique Sobejano, at 97, said in an interview for the article published by Agencia EFE in April, entitled "How to manage boredom", that he has not become bored during confinement: "I have a very strong inner life", he says, while defining himself as "not very streetwise, perhaps introverted and taciturn". Sobejano is not prone to boredom, and circumstances are such that he is able to maintain optimal levels of activity/excitement in the current situation. Aurelio, who has spent his quarantine with no one, as he told Cadena Ser a few days ago, says he has not been more disturbed by boredom than usual because he has "something good that is resilience" and takes advantage of his isolation to find himself. In his situation, boredom should not have been a problem either then or now. 

On the contrary, the routines of many older people who even spend much of their time at home or alone under normal circumstances have been broken, and many of the activities with which they used to kill time and avoid boredom are now on standby, such as going for a walk, going to the bar for a coffee or hanging out with family and friends. An anonymous interviewer for TeleMadrid lamented in March that retired people were now "going to be bored for a month" - and he didn't know it was going to be long! Pat, 72, has decided to stay at home and opt for isolation to avoid contagion from COVID-19. In an interview for La Vanguardia, the same month, she said that her "main problem is boredom" of being locked up in the home. Carmen, 87, confirmed to eldiario.es that she was fine, "bored, nothing else". Many media have also picked up the words of María Branyas, the longest living woman in Spain - who has also overcome the coronavirus - in which she expresses that during her isolation "life changed little for her, but she was very bored" in the retirement home where she lives.  

A careful look at the issue shows us that, while many elderly people may not have seen their daily boredom increase too much during confinement, for many others this virus has been worse than COVID-19 itself. Added to the breakdown of their modest routines are the anguish and fear of the pandemic, the isolation from loved ones, the experience of loneliness and the difficulty of accessing alternative entertainment media to which we young people - if I may still include myself in this group - have no problem resorting to in order to escape from home detention, such as social networks or pay TV platforms (which even we are starting to get bored, it has to be said). 

It is important for older people to maintain, as far as possible, their daily routines and stay active so as not to fall prey to the monster of boredom. In part, it is up to us, those of us who are close to them, to provide them with access to other forms of distraction throughout the duration of the quarantine, thus avoiding, at the same time, our own boredom. But to do this, we need to be able to break the negative stereotype that the elderly are lonely, unproductive and boredom-friendly by nature. Can we help each other cope with boredom in times of coronavirus?

Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal