Each day we learn more about the havoc Covid-19 has wreaked on our age mates, how individuals 65+ make up about 15% of the total US population but account for about 30% of corona cases and 80% of the deaths. These stories—filled with fear, outrage, sympathy, and concern—also highlight the efforts many make on our behalf. People we know and people we don’t are risking their own health and well-being to sustain ours—our neighbors, our children and grandchildren, druggists, grocery store cashiers, nurses, and “first responders,” to name but a few. I am stunned and humbled by their generosity and grateful for their help.
I’m afraid to say that the focus on our disproportionate suffering is appropriate. It helps direct resources where they are needed, and it highlights breaches, too long ignored, in health care system treating the elderly. But the portrait of older people that draws forth the support also makes me uneasy.
The portrait of extremely vulnerable elderly people, incapable of taking care of themselves—and others—doesn’t ring entirely true. The vast majority of elders, at least so far, is fine. The corona virus is concentrated among individuals 80 years old and older, and this group represents only about 25% of the elderly population (aged 65+). Even among this group, the virus mostly claims those with “underlying” medical conditions, and they are mostly seen among the over-80 population. It goes without saying that the suffering each person and each families who have endured the pain and loss caused by Covid-19the disease terrible; and it is tragic, since better national preparedness would have saved many of them from it. But my point here is that it is only a relatively small percentage of us who are that significantly “at-risk.” The devil is in the denominator.
The great majority of us remain healthy because we comply with prescriptions for physical distancing and for stay on top of our health, quickly reporting worrying health concerns and symptoms. Yet if you get your covid-19 news from the popular media, you might not know that. Baby boomers, in particular, have been portrayed as counter-dependent, fiercely resistant to being helped, even scofflaws.
We’ve all read stories about the exasperated, sometimes condescending efforts by adult children trying, to curb the headless and reckless behavior of their parents. Sounds like parents with children, doesn’t it. No doubt the attention is well-meaning and partly sympathetic. I’m pretty sure the exasperation is partly an expression of their own sense of futility, their fear of not being able to protect us. They are also stretched themselves – home-schooling their children, working in unsafe environments or attempting work at home, concerned about their own health and financial stability. And we need their help, however difficult it is for us recently independent sorts, to find ourselves in this position.
At the heart of matters for us is that we want to believe this generational reversal is a necessary but momentary shift. But we fear that it might not be. The pandemic may have precipitated a broad and lasting shift between generations; and most of us are not prepared for it.
Experts admit that they don’t know how the pandemic will affect the way our society treats its elders in the long run. Will it dramatically gin up the demand for better resourced elder care facilities? How long will “elderly people be encouraged, even required, to limit their social interactions and movement, essentially living their lives indoors? Will this current generation of older people be ushered, in one fell swoop, into an entirely new stage of life? The pandemic may well be a bridge to a future we can’t predict, don’t want to imagine, and frankly, don’t want.
The vast majority of us—those with means to do so—are working hard to maintain our health, vitality, and optimism – to place us in the best possible position for full participation when the pandemic eases. To the extent possible, we are managing the crisis in a disciplined way. We have been reading and writing, playing music, and doing puzzles. We’re taking long walks, doing yoga, and meditating more than ever. And finding diverting TV shows. Where we can do volunteer work virtually, we’re doing it. We’re waiting eagerly for warm weather but have taken on wintry days as well. We have been Zooming, finding new ways to connect with one another – virtual cocktail hours, dinners, discussion groups. That’s been a particularly enjoyable corona byproduct for me — I’ve been happily engaged with more non-work-related people during the last couple of months than during any other period I can remember.
I’ve asked friends whether they expect to contract the virus. Almost all say no, because they accept the strictures of physical distance. No, because they eat well and otherwise take care of themselves. They have moments of lethargy and despair but, for the most part, they remain more defiant than yielding in the face of the pandemic’s assaults. They regret not traveling, not getting to play out their retirement plans, but none that I know of has done so with bitterness. No one voices concerns, at least out loud, about hurrying toward what is called “functional decline” – what researchers suggest often happens, anyway, with elderly people in isolation. Some, with extra room in their homes, have taken their children and grandchildren in, to join them in quarantine. Others, many of whom do miss their grandchildren acutely, nonetheless make do with virtual encounters, patiently waiting for the pandemic to subside.
Those of us on the “outside” – in our own homes — know that there is love and generosity in those who want to protect us. And we need their help – with shopping, with transportation, with technology. But we worry that we might grow too passive and weak if we accept all the help offered us. Up to this moment, many of us have felt generally capacious and strong — if not physically, then psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually. We have spent lifetimes taking care and supporting, and even now and into the future, we believe we can still be capable and steady, ready to come forward in times of crises. We can still be present for others when they are anxious or frightened. We don’t want to leap—suddenly, grossly—across a great chasm into that moment when we ourselves will need a great deal of support, and will be viewed as having little to offer. Taking such a leap might precipitate an internal transformation from independent to dependent. We are not ready for that.
I suppose that there’s a bottom line: We can and must accept our age, with all its pleasures and limitations, though that was as true in January before COVID-19 as it is now. At present many of us need extra support and help of various kinds–mostly instrumental but some psychological and social. We can and must accept them as long as they don’t feel like a short path to a distant pasture–an ineluctable course that ends with feebleness and invisibility. We can and must gratefully acknowledge the help we receive, as long as it comes with respect and care; we can and must develop and implement strategies to help in return.
Reclaiming our lives or the lives we had imagined for ourselves might be the most challenging pieces of this puzzle. But I have two thoughts about that puzzle. First, I am pretty sure we’ve learned something about ourselves while in quarantine, and we need to integrate that new learning into our vision. Maybe something about timelessness and the value of the present moment. It’s what we’ve got. Second, the shifting of generational lines has probably opened new possibilities in our families, and they too, should be added to the mix. I, for one, am pretty sure that Franny and I and our children will be building our future in a closer partnership than the one we had before.