On March 15, when we began to shelter in place, I was 72 years old and my husband was 77 — not young or middle-aged for sure, but we didn’t consider ourselves old, not really, nor did most of our friends. “Old” was people who couldn’t walk or ride bikes; old was people who were unable to travel; old was people who needed home health aides; old was people in nursing homes.
In a youth-oriented society like ours, we had shied away from becoming seniors, rejecting that view of ourselves as lesser: less active, less capable, less technologically savvy, less attractive.
In a youth-oriented society like ours, we had shied away from becoming seniors, rejecting that view of ourselves as lesser: less active, less capable, less technologically savvy, less attractive. We had no intention of living out the stereotype of old people as bad drivers with faulty memories. We exercised, took care of our bodies, paid attention to how we looked, stayed well-informed and engaged in current events and our families. We worked or volunteered and took pride in sharing our wisdom and continuing to help improve the world and our communities.
When my son, who lives close by us in Philadelphia, texted at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to tell us that we wouldn’t be able to see our grandchildren for some time, that we were to stay home and not go into stores, that he or someone else would do our shopping for us, we were in shock.
We thought he was overreacting, but more than that, we thought he was presuming a lot. Didn’t he understand that we were strong and hearty, young for our years, engaged in the world, perfectly able to take care of ourselves and others? OK, yes, the virus did seem to pose an extra risk to people our age, but maybe those people were not as healthy as we were, not as active and energetic, not as confident as we were that, in spite of some undeniable underlying conditions, we had quite a few productive years ahead of us.
Suddenly, all that changed. From one day to the next, our self-image shifted and we began to feel vulnerable, to realize our lives might truly be at risk. There were stories in the newspapers about all the elderly people who were dying — people who were our age, not just people in their 90s. It turned out that a lot of those people lived in nursing homes, and for a couple of weeks we once again felt more optimistic. But soon there was no denying that the obituaries were full of people our age who had been living independent lives, engaged with their families and communities — people like us.
Living in a city where the disease has not yet overwhelmed the health care system, our worst fear of dying isolated and alone has not been realized. No one has been triaged in favor of a younger person, so far as we know. Yet we read in the spring that doctors and medical personnel across the country with too many sick patients to manage were preparing to ration care, and age is definitely a big factor. Rising numbers suggest that situation could recur.
We get the message that we’ve had our chance and must now surrender to other social priorities; yet we feel entitled to more than that. Maybe not entitled to preference, but to a fair shot at a longer life, more time to complete unfinished projects, to pass on what we’ve learned. But it feels like nobody shares our point of view.
The young and fearless give little thought to our fate or our feelings as they party in bars and public places. Their carelessness feels like a slap in the face. We would have sacrificed to keep our elders alive. Today’s youth mostly seem content to let us take our chances.
Like wolves picking off the old and sick, the virus strikes vulnerable people, people like us whose only crime was reaching a certain age; people often discounted by the young and strong. Clearly, it seems our lives don’t matter much to society as a whole. The species will survive without us.
Looking at ourselves during virtual cocktail hours with friends on Zoom, we now notice our wrinkles, the flesh hanging on our necks and the double chins on display when the camera is pointing up, the gray and even white roots exposed, the shaggy beards and fuzzy eyebrows — and we look someplace else on the screen. That isn’t ourselves we are seeing but a version of ourselves the virus has revealed, a version we thought we had rejected but secretly fear is really who we are.
There’s no question we’ve all aged dramatically. Just a few months ago, we were only as old as we felt; now we’re just old. It’s been obvious to everyone but us. Even my 7-year-old grandson knows he can’t hug his grandparents because they’re old and he might make them sick. Of course, he knew we were old long before all of this happened. Only we didn’t know. Well, maybe some of us did. Like it or not, we all know now.