Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging COVID-19

COVID-19: Viewing the Virus from Senior Living and Senior Living

Written by Barbara L. Finch, MLA and alumna, Washington University in St. Louis

Shortly before my husband and I moved into an independent living retirement community three years ago, a friend asked: “Will this be like living in a college dorm?” In some ways it is. There are a number of people (in our case, fewer than 100) living under the same roof. There is a sense of community and safety. But unlike college dorms, our home here is quiet. There are fewer parties, less alcohol and less sex (although we go to bed earlier than most dorm-dwellers.)

My husband and I have loved getting rid of all of our real estate and homeowner obligations. Our move brought us a sense of both freedom and security, and the opportunity for additional companionship and shared experience.

Until it didn’t. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020, our community went into lockdown. Sheltering in place meant staying in our apartments. We were permitted to leave only for medical appointments. The amenities that attracted us to this community were immediately discontinued: weekly housekeeping services, an exercise facility and exercise classes, movies, shared dining, yoga. All of us here, from the vital 70-year-olds to the incredible women who are centenarians, suddenly became vulnerable: the frail elderly.

We all understand that, as older adults, our age alone makes us more vulnerable to illness and death—not only from Covid-19, but to most other ailments. And we are grateful to the management of our facility for their efforts to keep us safe. They have been successful; we have had accidents, illnesses and deaths here, but none have been attributable to the coronavirus.

So while we are physically safe, the emotional toll on many of us has been great. Those of us who don’t consider ourselves to be “frail,” those of us who still drive and go to meetings and have children and grandchildren in the area, who enjoy having lunch out or doing volunteer work, have in many cases had our lives turned uncomfortably awry. We feel isolated and lonely and abandoned—-the very things we sought to escape by moving here.

People are coping in different ways. A few of our neighbors who are fortunate enough to have children in the area have temporarily moved in with them. After two months, my friend Dorothy gave up and called her daughter in New Jersey to come and get her. Dorothy says she will return when its OK for people to come and visit her in her apartment. My friend Kathy, who is 91, has a different approach: she says she will stay in her apartment until we get a vaccine.

The greatest source of irritation and sorrow for most of us is the inability to see and touch and hug our children and grandchildren. Zoom is a wonderful invention, but it is cold comfort for most older people I know. We do understand that staying apart keeps them safe as well as us, but understanding does not always lead to acceptance.

So here we are in our enforced lock-down, comparing ourselves to everything from prisoners to caged animals. We know how fortunate and privileged we are to live in a wonderful facility. We have plenty to eat. We have books and magazines and television—-and those of us who are truly blessed still have spouses to talk to. Those of us who are physically able can take a walk in the park across the street.

Yet, for some of us, this is not enough. And we wonder if, in their efforts to keep us alive, they are preventing us from living.

Posted on my desk is my favorite quote, from Helen Keller. It seems apt for me in the spring of 2020: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

Most of the 80-year-olds I know have a lot more living left to do. Let’s hope we can get to it soon.

Barbara L. Finch holds a Master’s degree in Liberal Arts from Washington University in St. Louis and,  for many years, worked as a public relations consultant in the health care industry.  In 2005, she co-founded Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, a grassroots education and advocacy organization.