In the past few weeks, the voices and even the lives of American elders have been marginalized, scapegoated, written off. Most recently, certain politicians have presented a false and horrifying choice — either we protect citizens over 60 or we save the economy.
We thought it was time to hear elder voices. They are living this anxious, troubled moment like no one else. Every day we will add more stories to this mosaic — some tragic, some wistful, some full of levity and hope. They will be at the top of this page every morning.
Please add your voice. If you want to share your thoughts, or if you know a family member, neighbor, or friend who should be heard, click here for our submission guidelines.
WE HAVE BECOME A PROBLEM
IN SEARCH OF A SOLUTION
Ann S. Sentilles
Born in 1947
“Beware the elderly.” Or is it, “Beware, elderly?” Or “Elderly beware?”
In any case, I am increasingly distressed to find myself classified among the “elderly.”
Perhaps I am reacting to the “elderly” label self-protectively. It could be that the very idea of a deadly pandemic in my lifetime is so terrifying that I am choosing to focus instead on the term “elderly,” and the inexorable vicissitudes of aging it conjures in others and, clearly, in me.
Funny thing is, I felt just as strongly about eschewing “middle-aged” as an identity when I was 45 (which is admittedly just about as middle-aged as one can hope to be). I guess I have this thing about ageism, and the thing about it is, my own response is textbook ageism. At its worst. I make assumptions about what it means to be a certain age and I harbor prejudices against those assumptions without looking beyond them to each person as an individual.
Nevertheless, for healthcare purposes, it is beginning to make sense to come to terms with being “elderly,” even when I wish I were not. There are, of course, healthy elderly and frail elderly, folks over 60 who are in shape and folks who are in terrible shape, people who take good care of themselves and those who are not able to, and across all demographics, but especially ours, many who have very legitimately concerning “underlying conditions,” all of which make each of us more — or less — vulnerable to disease and viral infections. The basic biological fact I am forcing myself to come to terms with is that my immune system is probably just as flabby as my upper arms, and for the same singular reason — my age.
The shallow, vain part of me is stomping my feet and shouting, “Don’t call me old!” But my deeper concern is more philosophical, even existential. If I am, if we are, broadly labeled and officially identified as “elderly,” for public health purposes, what does that mean for our access to and our level of care? Might we be triaged, as reportedly happened in Italy, to the end of the line say, for respirators, no matter how sick we become, if someone has tacit permission to calculate that we’ve lived long enough, or that we don’t have enough years left to be worth saving?
We become a problem in search of a solution, an “other” whose worth and value is summarily diminished because of only one identifying factor of who we are, our age. This happens with all “others” who are so classified: the poor, for example, migrants, women, children, racial minorities, gays, and people who are trans. And thus, I resist.
Don’t call me elderly. My name is Ann.
THAT HOPEFUL LOOK OF SIDELINED ENTREATY
Born in 1955
When the virus first surfaced and younger people were told — incorrectly, it turned out — they were at less risk, I could feel them scowling at me in the streets (when it was still OK to be in the streets) as if to say, “You’re the reason we can’t party.”
I just turned 65. This means that I’ve had more than a few years of familiarity with what I think of as “the youthful gaze.” This may be akin to “the male gaze” bemoaned by women, though I won’t pretend to compare my plight to theirs.
In any case, it’s happening more.
At first my strategy was to establish eye contact, smiling. The move only seemed to make matters worse, and often drew a smirk. Did the young person figure I was feeble-minded? Maybe he or she resentfully assumed I was retired (nope), out of the abysmal workforce where others still suffer. I could only guess.
Today I avert my focus, stare at the tops of my shoes, a posture that seems better to befit my age and station. Head down. There’s no person in here.
I have three grown kids and the same number of grandchildren. Sometimes in mid-afternoon I am stricken with a sudden sadness that before long I must leave them with the Anthropocene, that they will suffer what’s left of our planet without me. My son posted on Instagram an image from our video chat. How odd it was to see on my own face what I’d seen on my elders when I was a boy — that hopeful look of sidelined entreaty. Of absence understood as near at hand.
My partner Joyce and I agreed from the start that we would not become parents together, but recently brought aboard a four-year-old girl. It’s a complicated story, as most stories are when probed. What’s not complicated, or not yet, is the girl herself, a fiercely cheerful package of delight.
“In your life, have you seen anything like this before?” my son asked, referring to the virus. The only experience that I could remotely compare was the Cuban missile standoff in 1962. I was seven years old that fall, and had only a dim awareness of the situation, filtered through jittery adults. One night I played with friends at Janice Olson’s house. See you tomorrow, Janice said when we left. The door closed and I heard behind it, “If there is a tomorrow.”
We thought the whole world might blow up. Now, at last, it’s blowing up slow.
ZERO DARK RONALD AND THE BIKE RIDE TO NOWHERE
Born in 1953
Well, this is new. My historical existential dread involved Soviet cruise missiles screaming over my old West Oakland studio space on their way to take out the Naval Air Station down the road. That seemed probable, immediate, and finite. This pandemic, though, it’s something else entirely. It’s just out there, and there’s more of it every day.
Big introvert over here, so social distancing hasn’t been a hardship for me. Today it’s been 14 days since I was last at my job at a legal services nonprofit in San Francisco. That 14 days is significant, according to what I’m hearing from the WHO. Gratitude.
I’m hoping, but not expecting, that my luck will hold. I’m playing a 2-part game that goes:
1.When am I going to get it?
2. Is it going to kill me?
For extra credit, I linger over the question of how that (#2) might play out. Bonus points for worrying that I’ve already given it to Mary, my ever-lovin’ wife.
Every morning around 3:50 when I wake up to pee, and find myself asymptomatic, it’s a blessing. Then I get to experience that again at 6:00 when the cats get me up for breakfast.
We’re doing all right. We’ve got enough space in our apartment that we can get away to another room, and we count ourselves very lucky. We’re housed, can afford food. I’m doing as much work from home as our crappy wifi will allow, Mary’s about to go out for a walk, and the stupid cats don’t even know that anything is up, except for a vague notion that the monkeys really ought to leave for a few hours during their mid-morning/early-to-mid-afternoon nap time. We’ve got food and TP. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody who was symptomatic. I did see a guy on Jackson Street sanitizing his hands with a half pint of Royal Gate vodka. Oh, and the McDonalds on the corner has gone Zero Dark Ronald. That set me back a bit!
I go out for a bike ride to nowhere every morning. I take along my shopping bag as a pro forma gesture, but I really enjoy just riding. Nope, I don’t need to enter that shop after all.
SOMETHING IS GAINING ON US
Born in 1933
I was born in Philadelphia in 1933 and remember a man coming to the door asking for food. My young mother put a dish of baked beans into his burlap sack and told him that was all she could spare. My father had a good job but was allowed to work only three days a week. Now I see people who cannot go to work at all and many of them won’t be paid. I live alone in an apartment at the edge of the University of Vermont campus. I love the atmosphere and the energy generated by so many young people. It has been quiet for a month. The gothic buildings are dark, the pathways empty. There will be no May graduation on the campus green.
Traffic is light. There are parking spaces. This morning I met my meditation group in a Zoom session. We saw the dear faces of our friends. We shared stories about our week and what lies ahead. Most of us are old and a little afraid. We understand something is gaining on us. We will follow the rules and try to protect each other. Vermonters are tough and independent, but we realize we’re not immune.
New York City, New York
Born in 1949
I open my eyes and all I hear is quiet.
Is it middle of the night? Early Sunday morning? Mid-day Tuesday?
Days, dates and hours have lost their relevancy.
I find myself asleep in the afternoon, wide awake at 3 AM…
it’s all one long day.
I live on NYC’s Upper East Side. 3rd floor.
The morning overture begins with garbage trucks, construction work, Ubers, Vias, and the vanishing yellow taxis honking.
Then the Brearly girls start screaming. And I curse them.
I long to hear those shrill screams.
The world keeps on spinning.
So there is another day to face.
Beginning with me unhappily acknowledging my intense pain.
Chronic bad back.
In the years BC, (Before Coronavirus), there were shots administered by the ever-so-willing Dr. Schottenstein (aka “Dr. Shot-in-the ass”).
Now there are no shots, not when I won’t leave my house.
So, I must acknowledge and accept the pain that cannot be addressed for months.
Considering all else, it’s merely a “minor annoyance.”
This is not new.
I pray everyday.
Nothing from a book. Certainly not in Hebrew.
Just talking to God.
First thanks for my blessed life.
Then asking for “stuff”.
No material wish list, just health and happiness for my loved ones.
Who gets the “lead ask” is dependant upon the magnitude of the issue
they’re currently facing.
I pray for the world.
Then, to bring some order to a world of chaos… a daily schedule.
Listing anything and everything from “take shower” to “write scene for screenplay” to “watch Better Call Saul.”
Hardly my usual schedule.
there is no “usual”.
Next with equal amounts of trepidation, I check the Times’ Morning Briefing, my email, my horoscope, and the stock market.
I skim internet articles…
“Ten great lockdown books,” “Netflix binges,” “Best on-line classes,”
“How to throw a social-distanced Luau.”
I applaud those who partake.
I’m too worried about never seeing my grandchildren again.
Through strange circumstances, and, I believe, God’s “master plan,”
my grown kids are living with us during this surreal time.
They are stepping up big-time.
Projecting a rational calm.
Believing I am overreacting, but remaining respectful of my beliefs.
My wife fulfills her mom-caretaker role without interruption.
We gather for nightly Jeopardy.
Me? I should be the leader of the family.
I am the weakest link.
I’ve lost my usual “half-full” attitude.
I seriously consider the end of the world.
I need to step up my game.
The other day I assessed my life of 70 years…
Pretty damned good!
If I died today, I’d have to say, “I won life.”
I think about Charlie, almost 4, and Wes, just turned 2.
They must have their lives.
Full of all the good, happy days that make life what it is.
And I want to be part of it.
I just have to wait.
A FORCE OUTSIDE MYSELF
Born in 1941
There are two specific and strong feelings I am having in response to the pandemic, but more specifically to the changes that have happened so rapidly in the past 1-2 weeks.
One of the feelings has to do with the realization of the life of privilege that I have led. This is, of course, not the first time I’ve thought about it, but is the first time I have had to consider, as well as implement, a change of lifestyle dictated by a force outside myself. In just the past two weeks I have had to cancel a major surgery because it was elective, had medical appointments canceled, been unable to buy groceries that heretofore have been so abundant that I am sometimes overwhelmed by the choices, and had to make conscious decisions to not greet friends and acquaintances with a hug! All those things are really insignificant in the grander scheme, which makes me all the more embarrassed that I take it all for granted.
The other thought that keeps coming back to me concerns my wondering how my parents dealt with the major events in their life which were comparable, if not more frightening, to this pandemic. I know my mother lost a sibling to the Spanish flu of 1918. I know that both parents’ families struggled in different ways during the Great Depression. I was born one week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and my father was in the Navy. Because my parents were not the kind of people who shared feelings easily, I never knew if they were scared or lost hope, or if they just kept going one day at a time.
NOW, BECAUSE OF MY AGE
El Cerrito, CA
Born in 1955
I never defined myself as elderly, although in my 60s, although retired, although growing gray hairs requiring cover up color every three months or so. My age is a number. Now, my age, in the Spring of Pandemic, is a death verdict, according to news reports. Now, because of my age, I am vulnerable. Now, because of my age, people see me and ask me what I need. Perhaps I was fooling myself, even before the pandemic. No longer am I the do-gooder, the helper, the strong person caring for those who are “vulnerable.”
Now I hear politicians tell me that I am expendable, that the economy is more important. The suggestion of senicide is raw and personal and I am enraged.
But while Wall Street tries to put the nails in my coffin, I am inspired by the younger voices that shout out TRASH to those who put profit over people, and the younger voices that articulate care and concern for the grandmother, the uncle, the mother or the father.
And when I make wellness check calls on my neighbors, the 60+ year-olds who live by themselves, they tell me the same thing. They feel like they are being redefined by the pandemic, labeled and categorized and socially reconstructed.
MARRIAGE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS, PART 1
Born in 1949
My husband of 47 years is an academic psychologist and researcher. One of his areas of greatest interest is disasters. He’s studied psychological reactions to Mount St Helens, the 1989 California earthquake, wars, floods, hurricanes, you name it, if it’s bad, he’s on it.
Being with him is kind of like being married to a first responder – except he does it at a distance. In the days following 9/11, I had to wrap my fingers around his neck and squeeze to get him to detach from his computer screen so he could talk to me, for God’s sake. Usually, I had already spent much of the day talking to friends or emailing them about the changes in our lives. But I still had so many important matters I wanted to discuss with my husband. Such as: was the world ending? Would this change us forever? Should I set fire to his PC?
Eighteen years later, it’s a new kind of disaster, but in many ways we are the same people we were in 2001: I always want to connect with other people (virtually or otherwise) and he wants to lose himself in his work. You know what? I think it may be time for me to apply a little pressure to his neck.
MARRIAGE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS, PART 2
Born in 1949
It’s almost romantic to realize we’ve been sharing germs for more than 50 years.
THE REVIVAL OF THE COMMON GOOD
Born in 1943
My 50 years working as a nurse and then a nurse practitioner makes me want to have a more active part in the fight against this invisible enemy. I felt sad when New York State asked for retired health care workers to re-enter the workforce, and I had to reply that I now live 1500 miles away from where I might be needed. I felt frustrated when the hospital where I now volunteer asked those of us over age 60 to stay home.
So I stay home and find patterns for making masks, help search out places to buy masks and gloves, and send cheery notes to others who are alone at home.
I cry for the mom in my neighborhood whose little boy doesn’t have other kids to play with because parents know his mother works in a hospital.
I am touched by my neighbors who volunteered to get groceries for me. I am happy to see chalk art on the sidewalks and kind words in emails. These give me hope that we, as a nation, will truly appreciate our responsibility to each other as we face a common challenge.
My dream is that famous persons in sports and film will take a more active role in encouraging people to follow social distancing and other science-based recommendations. I hope that faith communities will emphasize our role in caring for each other. I would love to revive the term “common good.” I hope that we can rediscover this truth if only in the simplest of terms.
MARRIAGE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS, PART 3
Born in 1949
Since this epidemic began, my daughter and I have been emailing each other most days to talk about how we’re doing, what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking and fearing, what we can still laugh at. It’s a way of comforting each other but it’s also a record of our lives during this crisis – something our descendants might be interested in someday. Who knows?
Anyway, a couple of days ago, I proposed that Pioneer Woman, pictured here, should be our role model. This was appropriate since I was born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where the statue of Pioneer Woman and her kid is. My husband and I have a replica of the statue in our living room, which he photographed after only a slight amount of nagging on my part.
I quickly came up with all kinds of examples of how Pioneer Woman – who was probably our ancestor! – would tell my daughter and me to get it together and stop whining. After all, PW and her son had probably been rattling around in a covered wagon for weeks or months, battling starvation, heat waves, renegades and outlaws, cactus, rattlesnakes, vultures, vermin, and disease. She wouldn’t have much use for 21st-century American women who had climate control, indoor plumbing, washers and dryers, and Netflix – but still managed to whine about how tragic they were going to look in six weeks without the attention of a good hairdresser.
I mean, look at PW! She’s stalwart! She wears a bonnet over her bad haircut! She’s tough, she’s no-nonsense! We needed to channel her, like, immediately!
But then, I also realized PW came to Oklahoma to take land away from the Native Americans, whom we also are descended from (my daughter and I are both card-carrying members of the Chickasaw Nation). She was probably – let’s face it! – a total Indian-hater and racist. She’s clutching a book that may be the Bible, since she strikes me as one of those Old Testament-heavy mothers who torture their kids with stories about Job and hellfire and damnation.
And look at her kid! Isn’t he kind of cringing by her side? I bet you money she was also one of those spare the rod and spoil the child types who beat the shit out of her kid when he annoyed her. Also, from the looks of her, she might have been a litterer.
Oh, well. So much for 19th-century role models in the time of coronavirus. I think my daughter and I will probably be sticking with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
MARRIAGE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS, PART 4
Born in 1949
It’s always been a mystery and a fascination to me – this business of who we love and who we cling to over the years. Yesterday was a day when everything unnerved me: our future, our children’s and grandchildren’s future, the fate of our country and the world. It was all bleak.
“I really believe everything is going to be all right,” my husband told me last night. He said this with such confidence that I could almost breathe it in and feel it myself – the way his optimism and buoyancy have always comforted me.
Well, almost always. Like any quality you love most about another person, it’s also what drives you crazy about him. That’s for another day, though. Last night, it was exactly what I needed and I realized, again, how lucky I have been with him.
HUDDLED IN OUR HOUSES
Ann Arbor, MI
Born in 1928
I’m terrified right now. I really am, and maybe you all are too.
I’ve got the wastebasket there now for my New York Times blue wrappers. I don’t bring them in. I don’t know what good it does. Even touching the paper! I’m so afraid of touching anything now. I wash my hands six, eight times a day, eight or ten times a day.
I’ve been thinking about Pearl Harbor. I was born in 1928, so I was thirteen at the time. There were similarities between now and then.
Of course I heard the initial broadcast. I was sitting in the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon about 2:00 or 2:30. I had the radio on and I heard it. The Japanese attacked. And of course it was a terrible shock, and as I’ve said to my son numerous times, we had this terrible feeling that we were going to lose the war. We were losing the war for six months.
But then, in spite of that, in many ways it was not as bad as now. We had rationing, gas rationing, meat rationing, butter, ice cream, anything like that was rationed. You could not get tires for cars.
Ice cream. We had no more ice cream. We had ices, they called them. It was kind of like sorbet, but not really as good as sorbet. No ice cream. So we had things like that, but we still ate very well. And there were still movies, there was still football. Ohio State was still playing football. Life wasn’t changed that much.
It was a terrible time, but we weren’t afraid for our lives. I mean, otherwise you’re still normal. We weren’t like we are now, huddled in our houses, you know, fearful for our lives.
THAT ODD, UNNERVING SENSE
Born in 1953
The feeling on the waterfront streets at this time of evening reminds me of two things. That strange lull before late-night anti-war actions in the early ‘70s when we thought we were revolutionaries.
Then flash forward to central India when martial law (or their version of it) would suddenly hit the streets for a few hours. That odd, unnerving sense that something is going wrong somewhere around you but you don’t what it is. The streets would empty out and everyone was instructed to freeze in place. Those incidents would only last a few hours or a day at most.
It does seem like there is a large shift going between the forces of greed and the more hopeful feeling that people are coming to their senses.
OUR LIVES ARE SET IN STONE
Born in 1945
I am not overly concerned for my generation as our lives are basically set in stone.
My dad grew up during the Great Depression and moved from rental home to rental home when his parents could not pay the rent. They only survived because my grandfather was a moving man and was able to sell used furniture, which provided a few dollars for rent. I feel my dad was forever scarred by that experience.
My mom and her parents were from London and lived through the WWII nightly German bombings; one can only imagine the fears they lived with. In fact, my grandad was permanently injured when part of a building collapsed on him during that time.
Prior generations have survived catastrophes because there were great leaders who inspired their citizens to persevere and fight through the muck. I pray that we have a leader who will be able to mend our current divisions, one who will understand all of our differences and help us understand why we are one! This is not a land of Red or Blue, it cannot be a country with two sides fighting each other; we are the land of the free, one nation, a country of equals.
These few moments, as I have written this note, have given me some peace of thought.
AS CAREFUL AS I CAN BE
San Leandro, California
Born in 1957
I read the warnings that people over 60 are “vulnerable,” and I think, “Oh, but they don’t mean ME.”
I’m only 62, I’m healthy, I’m not actually vulnerable. But then I see stories in the news of younger people who have succumbed to the virus. The 38-year-old New York principal, the young doctors in China. And just for a moment, I get a little scared.
I am being as careful as I can be. With the exception of early morning walks when I see almost nobody, and a very occasional trip to the grocery store, I am housebound.
But I have a young adult daughter who lives with me who works in the healthcare field, sometimes interacting with patients suspected of having COVID-19. When she gets home from work every day, she showers and puts her clothes in the washing machine. I spray the doorknobs and faucet handles with disinfectant. We converse from an appropriate distance. But I can’t be certain that she is not bringing the virus into our house. There is no way to know for sure. So, in some moments, I get scared.
I think about my parents, who lived through the Depression and World War II. I think of my young father, who fought in that war. He had never been outside California, and suddenly he’s on a ship headed to Europe. He must have been so scared. My mom, nearly 90 now, reminds me that things have been much worse, for much longer, and that everything will be okay. She does not seem to be scared. And I take a deep breath and get back to work.