Just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Shu Xu started having trouble seeing. Several eye surgeries left the gerontology doctoral candidate unable to move around much or do daily work. Then the pandemic hit, prolonging the time she needed to stay home.

Xu’s family members in China, meanwhile, had begun staying home because of the pandemic months earlier. Her phone calls and Facetime video calls with her overseas grandfather, now 93, grew challenging with her vision troubles and his increasing hearing loss.

“I started to pay attention to this population, older adults with visual or hearing impairments,” Xu says. Professor Jeffrey Burr, her UMass Boston gerontology mentor, urged her to explore the topic as a research project. Together with Haowei Wang, PhD ’20, now an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University, Xu dug into the Health and Retirement Study data set and found a special section of the 2020 survey that asks participants about their experiences during COVID.

Xu worked with Wang, Burr, and assistant gerontology professor Qian Song to compare 2018 and 2020 data for their study, “Sensory Impairment and Depressive Symptoms Among Older Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” published in 2023 in Aging & Mental Health. The researchers found that although older Americans with sensory impairments reported more depressive symptoms than those without sensory impairments, the difference between the two groups was reduced during the pandemic compared to before the pandemic.

“The pandemic kind of leveled the playing field,” Xu says. “People with sensory impairment had already experienced communication and logistical challenges, so they may have had some coping strategies in place. Some of them were already familiar with online technology such as Zoom video conferencing and home grocery delivery. I think about my own experience: I was already prepared for alternative ways to work and communicate from home, but when everyone else experienced it, they weren’t prepared.”

While the findings surprised the researchers, Xu thinks the results point to psychological resilience in people with sensory impairment. “These people may have a lot of stress about socializing and social contact in daily life, they likely experienced pandemic restrictions differently than older adults without such challenges, and the impact of lack of in-person contact might not be as significant for those with sensory impairments” she says. “Even though we found this resilience, it doesn’t mean they’re not at risk for depression or other adverse health outcomes.”

Xu has accepted a postdoctoral research position with the University of Michigan. She hopes to continue with related research questions including gaining a better understanding of the factors that protect older adults’ mental health during public health crises. She is working with Song on a paper involving national representative data from China to look at the timing of vision loss, how the age of onset affects cognitive decline and later life health outcomes.

Part of Xu’s motivation to continue the research is personal. She is proud of the study, the first paper in which she has served as first author, because it deals with two subjects that are important to her: older adults with sensory loss and the pandemic. Some of her vision loss is permanent, which affects nearly everything in her life, she says. Her grandfather, meanwhile, finally agreed to wear hearing aids. The two chatted recently via Zoom during Chinese New Year celebrations and her grandfather “seems happier,” Xu reports.