How Israel Is Coping With COVID-19
An interview with Dr. Ella Cohn-Schwartz on resilience and coping in Israel
Posted Sep 03, 2020
Ella Cohn-Schwartz, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Gerontology Program of the Public Health Department, Ben-Gurion University, Israel. Dr. Cohn-Schwartz focuses on the social activities and relationships of older adults, and on the effects of the social environment on mental health, cognitive function and aging perceptions in old age. She harnesses cutting-edge statistical methods to extract novel insights from large population-based surveys, aiming to facilitate productive, healthy aging. For example, she has demonstrated the importance of creating new relationships and helping others in old age, contrary to the common misperception of old age as a time of losses and passiveness.
Jamie Aten: How would you personally describe the COVID-19 situation in Israel?
Ella Cohn-Schwartz: Initially, Israel responded with decisive measures to the COVID-19 pandemic, including social distancing, isolation of passengers arriving from infected countries, and rigorous epidemiological investigations. By the end of March, the number of cases increased, leading to government-initiated local lockdowns, and on March 25 a general lockdown. By that time Israel enjoyed exceptionally low spreading of the disease and low mortality rates. Older adults, as an at-risk population, faced the harshest restrictions, which put them in danger of loneliness and separation from families. Nevertheless, NGOs and governmental organizations joined to provide some relief. As the economic consequences became harsher, the lockdown was relieved by May and June. Unfortunately, in July, Israel began to experience a second wave and the infection rates are rapidly rising. During that month, the government announced more and more restrictions on public gatherings, such as restriction of social gatherings to 20 people.
JA: What are some ways understanding Israel's COVID-19 situation can help us live more resiliently?
ECS: In our commentary paper we describe the situation of Holocaust survivors in Israel during the pandemic. Survivors are often found to be vulnerable to negative events due to the trauma they've suffered, but their past experiences can also make them resilient and teach them how to cope with future adversities. In the context of the current situation, we emphasize that Holocaust survivors should be encouraged to optimize their skills and resources to foster effective coping with the pandemic.
But such an approach is not only relevant to Holocaust survivors. It can be applied to older adults in general during these difficult times. In Israel, many older adults have lived through traumatic experiences, including in wars or terrorist attacks, and yet Israeli adults rank relatively high in terms of life satisfaction (#14 in the world according to the 2020 Happiness Report). Many adults have developed resilience and learned how to deal with hardships, and they can draw on their past experience to gather insights on coping with the current situation.
Along these lines, preliminary results from a survey I conducted in Israel among adults aged 50+ indicate that the pandemic has not been negative for all adults. The results show that some adults expressed positive experiences, such as spending more time with family and easing the pressures of everyday life.
JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst this pandemic?
ECS: The main point arising from my research is the importance of an active perspective towards coping. It is advisable to see the positive aspects of the COVID-19 situation, such as an ability to spend more time with family members, and actively seek to maintain and enhance one's supportive social relationships.
One way to cultivate meaningful social ties in these times is via online groups. I'm involved in a project that offered online groups to older adults, in which they could share their hardships with each other, as well as learn relaxation and mindfulness techniques and cognitive-behavioral coping strategies. Such groups alleviated loneliness and depressive symptoms among older adults, indicating the effectiveness of online social interactions and of learning coping techniques.
Additionally, it is recommended to employ holistic approaches to address the different needs of individuals. In Israel, NGOs are providing support to survivors by phone and video in either individual or group formats. Practitioners use holistic approaches to emphasize older adults' strengths, including psychotherapy, online group activities (e.g., social support meetings, physical activity classes) and provision of information. We should acknowledge the potential vulnerability as well as resilience of older adults and strive to cultivate their strengths to foster better coping and overall health.
JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?
ECS: When supporting a loved one struggling with a difficult life situation, we should remember that everyone has their own needs and preferences. Thus, it might be helpful to find the type of support relevant to that particular person. My research on coping with COVID-19 in Israel indicated the importance of living with someone, especially during these times when contact outside of the house is restricted. If possible, you should make sure that person has someone to live with, at least during the crisis. It is also vital to maintain regular contact, possibly through the telephone or via online groups, in which that person can express his or her struggles in a safe environment. You should encourage him or her to maintain a positive outlook and to find meaningful activities to engage in.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share?
ECS: I'm currently working on several projects related to coping with COVID-19 in Israel. Following up on our commentary paper on Holocaust survivors during the pandemic, we began a research project to empirically examine the situation of Holocaust survivors during the pandemic in Israel and examine whether their experiences differ from those of other older adults.
An additional project I'm working on is also related to the experiences of older adults during the pandemic in Israel. In this project, we carried out a nationwide survey of Israelis aged 50+, aiming to examine the factors associated with adherence to the guidelines and societal ageist perceptions during the pandemic. Preliminary results from this study indicate the importance of social resources, particularly the living arrangements of older adults. We found that adults who live with someone else, especially a family member, cope better with the pandemic. First, they are less likely to experience society as ageist during the pandemic. Second, they are more likely to adhere to social distancing guidelines and to avoid social meetings outside of the house. This is probably because they have companionship at home and thus have a lesser need to leave the house for social contacts.
Cohn-Schwartz, E., Sagi, D., O'Rourke, N., & Bachner, Y. G. (2020). The coronavirus pandemic and Holocaust survivors in Israel.Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(5), 502-504. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000771