By Sarah Lamb, with Ji Chen, Claire Ogden, Tirtza Schramm, and Lin Xinbei
Every morning, Americans wake up to fresh news of the heavy toll the coronavirus pandemic is exerting upon vulnerable older people—from the likelihood of developing a more severe form of Covid-19, to the risks of isolation and mental health problems as they give up social contacts in order to stay safe. We read essays like the New York Times opinion piece by professor of medicine Louise Aronson, describing not only the menace of death but another “rapidly growing phenomenon among older Americans as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic: lives stripped of human contact, meaningful activity, purpose, and hope.”[i]
Yet not all older adults are languishing in the Covid-19 age.
I am a cultural anthropologist who studies ideas and experiences of aging in the United States and India. Since the start of the pandemic, I and a small group of anthropology students have turned our attention to the pandemic experiences of healthy older Americans, those—by far the majority of older people in the United States—who are not living in long-term care facilities and who have not died from the virus (including two who had the virus but survived). Our 18 interlocutors all describe themselves as economically comfortable or privileged (although some were raised poor), live mostly in Massachusetts and New York, and are a range of ages (from 69 to 93) and race-ethnicities, including white and Black, and various religious affiliations.
A few striking themes stand out from the many rich interviews held by Zoom, FaceTime, and phone. One is a common sense that the pandemic is less hard on older people than on many younger folk, and that many older people are able to maintain social connections, meaningful activity, and some control over their own health, even amidst lockdown. These older Americans’ optimistic stories of resilience help recast the overgeneralized narrative of the vulnerable and isolated older person.
Life (less) disrupted
Everyone we spoke with felt shocked by the pandemic during the early days. “Even though I’m 93 and have lived a very long time, I have never experienced anything like this!” exclaimed Walt over Zoom with a huge smile on March 27, 2020, twelve days into the “lockdown” of his state of Massachusetts.
But when we asked, “Is the pandemic harder on the older or younger generations?” we were struck that most reply that it’s harder on younger people. Sure, in terms of physical health, older people are at higher risk of developing serious complications from the disease. But because they have already retired and fashioned the large contours of their lives (marriages, careers, education…), many imagine that, compared to the young, the quarantine is less disruptive to their daily routines, incomes, and aspirations.
Doug, age 71, reflected, “I’d say unquestionably the quarantine is harder for the younger people. Because a lot of the older people are kind of, I won’t say isolated, but they already have a home routine. … It’s almost easier for them to do the distancing. And even though everybody’s social at every age, I find that the older people have it a little easier, because they don’t have to worry about stopping school; they don’t worry about going out on dates. You know, my son’s 33—he’s still dating, and I said, ‘Well, how’s it going?’ And he said, ‘Well, I haven’t been able to go out.’” Ken, ten years past retirement, remarked, “We feel lucky that we’re not working—we didn’t lose our jobs like a lot of younger people did, so nothing changes with the income stream.”
Resilience that comes with age
Several also describe a resilience that comes with age, giving them strength and insight to brave the pandemic. Doug commented, “I think the tension is much worse for younger people because, you know, it’s unprecedented for everybody; but when you haven’t had any [difficult life challenges before]—I mean, the older people, we’ve coped with crises.”
Shirley, age 69, reflected, “Older people tend to be a lot more flexible and creative. The more experiences you have, the more ways you have to look at life. … As one ages, you have great experiences, good experiences, horrible experiences, and everything. So, you learn to kind of surrender and do what you have to do to make the best of it.” Lulu, age 81, remarked: “Every year that goes by, I feel stronger. … I guess I’m resourceful enough now not to feel upset by not doing all the things I would ordinarily wish to do.”
At age 73, Harry told of how this pandemic brings to mind his Vietnam War experiences, where he first developed resiliency. To the students on our group Zoom chat, he recalled: “I was dealing with something really scary when I was your age, 19 years old in Vietnam, and there was no guarantee I was going to come back. … I wasn’t the fastest. I wasn’t the strongest. I was scared! You know, I was a kid from the Southside of Chicago and suddenly at 19, I’m confronting this craziness and confronting my mortality. So, now you may be confronting your mortality. … But what you learn from this experience … can help prepare you for your future.” Pointing to his six other older friends on the group chat, he said, “We all, you know, we’ve overcome a lot. … I guess the message about aging is that resiliency is really important.”
Pursuing meaningful activity and health
Our older interlocutors also report being able to maintain social connections, meaningful activity, and considerable control over their health amidst lockdown. Aside from standard phone calls, many have quickly adopted virtual platforms like Zoom and Instacart as avenues for social interaction and provisioning. Several have expressed motivation to take daily walks and engage in virtual exercise classes indoors. Many are proud and buoyed by their regimens of healthy diets and supplements.
Barbara, in her mid-70s, exclaimed, “I’m more in shape now than I’ve ever been! It’s so easy to do exercise classes inside—all these free online classes—Pilates, yoga … I also walk outside every day. There’s nothing else to do!” She laughed. Likewise, for Marjorie, age 77, the pandemic served as motivation for her recent daily walking habit.
When he logged on to our group Zoom chat, Walt at 93 had just come in from a walk outside with his wife and sister-in-law, 6 feet apart. Walking and exercise are “very helpful for health!” Walt declared with a broad smile. Now especially during the pandemic, “if I miss a day, I’m almost afraid; it’s close to an addiction!”
To maintain a sense of control over his own health and safety, Lloyd, age 71, orders his groceries online, sanitizes every item to enter the home, and after seeing “Covid-19 is present” signs posted in his building’s lobby, keeps as far as possible from his apartment’s front door. Cecil, 91, feels that his own strong immune system and supplements regime will protect him, “I’m not worried about it. I don’t even get colds. I haven’t even had the ordinary flu since I was 39! If I just feel a hint of anything in my throat, I take a zinc lozenge. I take vitamin C every day.”
Most of our interlocutors also describe staying quite busy, socially engaged, and fulfilled during quarantine. Walt at 93 quickly adapted to holding the music appreciation class he teaches through his temple over Zoom. “I’ve heard people say they’re depressed with the pandemic,” Dianne, 77, remarked, “and I’m like, oh my gosh. It’s not going to keep me in long enough to get to everything I want to be done!” To socialize, Dianne shares every pandemic meal by speaker phone with a close friend who, like her, is widowed and living alone. A few weeks into the Massachusetts lockdown, Lloyd commented, “The last 72 hours, people I haven’t been in touch with for years—those who are still alive—are all checking in. … So, I absolutely have more contacts now with some people than before.”
Ken and June, ages 75 and 74, described the quarantine as feeling almost party-like at first, as friends were getting together for socially-distanced walks outside, learning to use Zoom, and participating in virtual Seders. “Zoom has become even more popular than toilet paper!” Ken laughed.
We absolutely need to recognize the global toll the Covid-19 pandemic is exerting upon older people. But the prevailing narrative of the vulnerable older person in the time of Covid-19 is misleading in its uniformity. Older people in the pandemic are not only vulnerable, isolated, and dying. Many are also experiencing resilience, agency, social connections, and pleasure.
If discourse on aging in the time of Covid-19 focuses only on vulnerability, we perpetuate implicit ageist assumptions—such as that older people cannot employ new virtual technologies, that they are not creative and resourceful in times of dramatic change, and that being old is bad. Through our abundant conversations, my students and I have found alternative truths to these stereotypes, ones that shed light on more complex realities and highlight strength rather than weakness.
With a generous smile, Lulu turned to the three anthropology students on our Zoom chat: “Aging is not as bad as young people think it is.”
[i] Louise Aronson, “For Older People, Despair, as Well as Covid-19, Is Costing Lives,” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/opinion/coronavirus-elderly-suicide.html , June 8, 2020.
Sarah Lamb is a Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and Andrew Carnegie Fellow. Her books include White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender, and Body in North India, and (as editor) Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession.
Ji Chen, Claire Ogden, Tirtza Schramm, and Lin Xinbei are Brandeis undergraduate students studying anthropology.
Brandeis students Izzy Hochman and Gabriela Mendoza also worked on this group project.
This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.
This is the fourteenth post in The Age of COVID-19 series, co-edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor and Narelle Warren. Please send your contribution to Narelle.Warren@monash.edu
All contributions will also be published on Somatosphere