For some old people, life during the pandemic is so unbearable, they are giving up. Being cut off from visits, socializing, and other activities that brought them joy may have been tolerable for a while, but now, it is starting to seem like there is no end in sight. No longer able to have a cherished nephew or devoted aide with them during life-saving treatments, some just stop the treatments. The New York Times reports that older people are attempting suicide at higher rates – not just cries for help, but genuine efforts.
It is especially difficult for older people who are in nursing homes and other institutions, where the level of care may have slipped, and rates of COVID-19 infections are frighteningly high. Even those who are living in places of their own are disproportionately in very small or dreary places, because older people are particularly likely to be struggling financially.
I’m 66. I don’t really think of myself as old, but I know that technically, I qualify. I also know that my age puts me at risk for getting infected, so I have been extraordinarily careful. I am bound and determined not to let COVID catch me. I haven’t stepped foot in a supermarket since March; I pay someone to do my grocery shopping for me. And as much as I would love to see my friends in person, I haven’t done any of that since early March, either.
But I’m not complaining. I’m on the privileged end of the scale. I have a place of my own that I love, in a beautiful, sunny town. I have arthritis but I still manage to go for a walk nearly every day on some deserted trail. I have work that is beyond meaningful – I’m passionate about the research and writing I do about people who are single. And I can do it from home. I’m missing out on a conference that was supposed to take place in London this month, but that seems like a small thing.
I’ve always savored my alone time. I worried at first that I would get worn down by week after week, month after month, of spending more time alone than ever before. Mostly, I still haven’t, though I do miss my friends, and I miss just being out and about among other people in stores, restaurants, farmers markets, and the sidewalks downtown.
I started writing this to tell you why I think there are distinct advantages of being old during a pandemic. First, I did some research to see if other people have been discussing this, and instead found a slew of dismal reports. They reminded me of how bad it can be, and so I opened this post with an acknowledgment of that.
In the emails I have been exchanging with some of my friends, though, particularly the friends who are about the same age as me, it is the theme of gratitude that we keep coming back to. For me, that gratitude is age inflected. I think I would be crestfallen if I were at an earlier stage of my career, and suddenly I could no longer see my colleagues or my students in person, or conduct my studies, or meet fellow academics at far-flung conferences. I think I would be devastated if I were in college or high school and could not have the total experience that only the pre-pandemic days offered. And if I were even younger than that, I suspect I would be not just distressed and disappointed but confused.
What makes me sad these days is not much of anything about my own life, but what I see so many younger people missing out on. (And that’s even without adding in the other staggering troubles others are facing, such as hunger, poverty, and the loss of jobs, homes, health, and even the lives of friends and family succumbing to COVID.)
There are things I won’t be able to do because of the pandemic. Maybe I’ll never get to them. But at 66, I’ve already been able to enjoy many of the life experiences we used to take for granted. All told, I feel far more grateful than deprived.