Frightening coronavirus headlines blare that 80% of the people who have died in this pandemic so far are people over 65. While only 17% of Americans are 65 or older, 31% of the cases of coronavirus are people over 65. They account for 45% of hospitalizations and 53% of ICU admissions, according to the Center for Disease Control’s March 25, 2020 report.
Yikes! What is it like during this pandemic for those of us over 65 and, in particular, for those of us in our eighties? This last week, even though I have been sequestered in my retirement community, I have been talking with a wide range of people in their eighties to learn how they are faring. I am observing the state of the world through my usual lenses, of being a psychotherapist and social psychologist. And, of course, also as a grandmother who is 85.
What are we feeling?
Older people feel a growing sense of fragility and vulnerability during a national epidemic. Many know of someone who’s been diagnosed with coronavirus. When we cough or sneeze, we fear we are coming down with the virus. News stories tell us daily that we will be the ones to die. Some of us scurry around and double our efforts to make our environment sterile. Others clear up some of the clutter around them so as not to burden our children if we do die. Our sense of vulnerability is not new, but for most of us, it is now omnipresent, scarcely ever retreating into the background of our minds.
We also feel increasingly out of control. The sense of being in control normally diminishes as one age. Almost all of us eightysomethings have body parts that don’t quite behave. Our eyes are weak, we need hearing aids, canes, and walkers. Our hearts and bladders are unreliable. But now we are bombarded with new directives whether we live at home or in the retirement community. Keep six feet away from others, stay at home, don’t go to the grocery store, don’t drive. Don’t go to restaurants, church, movies. The powers that be are trying desperately to keep us safe and alive, but we can feel like a child ordered to do this and that. Then some of our adult children and other family members start to bark orders as well. “Don’t go out, Mom, anywhere.”
We also fear we may be expendable. Some politicians have suggested as much. After all, we are not a productive part of society. What if we need to go to the hospital? A month ago, my friend Peter was told his pacemaker would run out in 30 days. He got an appointment to replace it, but at the last minute, the appointment was canceled. His anxiety level hit the roof. Was he already deemed not essential? Was there rationing of medical treatment going on? Would he get another appointment? (He did and the new one is working just fine.) But the terror he felt lurks in the minds of many older people.
What we need most:
1. We need to be told that we matter. The people around us, our grown children, our grandchildren, need to tell us that “You are important to me.” This is what we need to hear. It is just as important as any gift of sanitizers or medical advice.
2. We need social contact. We are social animals and we need each other to survive. In this time of epidemic and physical distancing, we still need social contacts. We are the generations that like talking on the phone. Solitary confinement is not good for our well-being. Visit us even if it’s just to park in the driveway and talk through the window. Call us frequently. The calls help us. (As long not incessant calls so you can nag us to take even more precautions.) Some of us have learned Zoom this last week and are attending book groups and church. But I have talked this week with many eightysomethings who don’t know how to get Netflix on their TVs or how to use their smartphone. Get them some help.
3. Treat us as people who have resources to offer. We elders have developed survival skills, resilience and a good deal of wisdom during our long lives. We grew up with parents who experienced the Depression. Many of us experienced World War II as children when we got used to living without – without things like travel, gas, butter, and sugar. As young people, we felt the power of pulling together to help our country. Today, we accept limitations without much fuss. We try to be good citizens and put the community ahead of our own self-interest. We have resources to keep ourselves occupied.
And our elder brains experience less worry, stress and anger than younger brains according to Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center for Longevity. We have developed the capacity to deal with loss and unpleasant realities. We know how to do it. There is much to be learned from us. Just ask.
Katharine Esty is a practicing psychotherapist, a widow, a mother, a grandmother, and a writer. Her recent book, Eightysomethings- A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness, was published by Skyhorse.
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This post was originally published on March 31st, 2020.
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