Actively Aging Through Crisis: 5 senior spotlights offering an inside view of what it’s like to be over 80 years old during the current crisis
This is the last week and summary of Actively Aging Through Crisis, with the final spotlight (#5) most recently added below. In summary, I found varying levels of fear in the older adults I interviewed, and with good reasons. Please read on…
Summary of Actively Aging Through Crisis: There Must Be Better Ways
As a result of all that I have learned through these five interviews, I am sure there are better ways to keep our older loved ones healthy and happy, and I’m determined to find them. Stay tuned…
Being Alone As A Hospital Patient
The 94-year-old from Spotlight #1 took a fall while carrying a bag of soil just a few days after his interview. His wife had to “drop him off” at the emergency room doors, not knowing when, or if, she would see him again. The hardship in this is hard for me to personally fathom — that life partners are not able to be at each other’s side during an emergency. Thankfully, after a few days of medical care, the gentleman was able to return home.
My grandparents often expressed fear of going to a hospital. For those actively aging through crisis, it has become a present-day fear now, as well.
There are valid reasons for this fear, and not because of a virus. It’s because an emergency visit is frightening enough, but the lack of emotional support makes it that much more traumatizing. (This is NOT a statement on healthcare workers or lack of compassion on their part. I’m referring to the natural and normal human elements of emotional support that have presently been removed.)
Dying Alone And Lonely
The dear friend of mine from Spotlight #2, the 97-year-old man who felt he was a prisoner, passed away this week. The sadness I feel can hardly be expressed. As a culture, we had progressed in helping people transition peacefully into death, with loved ones surrounding them at their greatest time of need. In the blink of an eye, or the lock of a door, that was stripped away just recently.
People in nursing homes and hospitals are emotionally alone for their duration now and it’s my personal belief that suffering from loneliness can extinguish the will to live. Experiencing the death of this loved one has made me ask myself very difficult questions:
- Have we allowed this moment of fear to strip away what has always made us human?
- If locking an older adult in a room and not allowing them to come out was a criminal offense just 3 months ago, is it really our best solution in their best interest now?
- If we’re trying to keep older adults safe, alive, and healthy in congregate facilities, where are the elements for inducing this good health?: exercise, sociability, and getting outdoors for fresh air and sunshine.
published May 22, 2020
Spotlight #5: “I Feel Protected”
I spoke with this savvy 81-year-old grandmother of six who feels fortunate she’s in a condo, where she feels protected without additional rules that would keep her from coming and going as she wants.
Unfortunately, she’s not “coming or going” much at all right now. In her pre-pandemic world, she danced several times a week as an active member of two square dancing clubs. She also enjoyed ballroom dancing at a studio nearby.
Ever To Dance Again?
“I love to dance and I feel tied down right now,” she continues sadly, “but I doubt it will ever happen again. How could we dance, knowing that we have to touch each other and be at a close distance? It would be a perfect breeding ground for a virus.”
This social and well-connected woman doesn’t personally know anyone who has died from the virus, but then she acknowledges that some of her square dancing acquaintances could be gone and she wouldn’t even know it since they aren’t in contact at this time.
Happy To Be In Ohio
She’s especially grateful that voting was stopped the night before it happened in March, and she appreciates Ohio’s Governor DeWine and Dr. Amy. She feels comforted when she watches them on TV in the afternoon.
Although I know she still attends online exercise classes twice a week and appears to be healthy, I asked if she was concerned that she might be weakening without her usual level of physical activity. She replied, “No, but I also use my treadmill. Maybe I’m only on it ½ hour at a time, instead of the two hours that would be spent dancing, but I still feel okay. I guess the only way I’d really know if I’m declining is to go dancing again and if dance classes opened tomorrow, I’d probably go… but they won’t, and I know it.”
Oh, So True
As for other people who choose to live an inactive lifestyle, she wisely said, “You can’t make people do what they ought to do.” Then she paused, and chortled, “or what we think they ought to do.” We both agreed this is an unfortunate statement of truth.
published May 14, 2020
Spotlight #4: “I’m Sending Him Back To Work”
I’ve known this nearly-90-year-old woman and her 93-year-old husband for about 3 years. They live independently and are probably more active than many who are reading this right now. To say they consistently impress me would be an understatement, and I was anxious to hear their perspective on actively aging through crisis.
Back To Part-Time Work
I called the wife to ask how she felt about her husband returning to his part-time employment this week. “My husband and I were both in agreement about it,” she said. “It’s a job he loves. Why should I keep him from it?”
“Actually,” she continued, “There are only 5 people who work there, and just by the nature of the work, they aren’t anywhere near each other. These employees are socially distanced without the government mandating it.”
She explained that many years ago her husband was a mechanical engineer but wanted to do a complete career shift to start a business as a sailmaker. She supported his choice to do so. “I’ve always supported his career choices, and this week was no different.”
Feeling “Normal” Again
This woman, also a hard worker who likes to be busy, said they both feel more “normal” with a regular routine returning. On his working days, the hubby packs his lunch and heads out the door while she works on things around the house. It’s worked for them for many, many years.
Private Residence vs. Congregate Living
I asked if they were grateful that they lived in their own private residence where they can feel free to come and go as they please and the answer was “YES.”
They had considered a move to a senior living community at one time, but they had chosen against it. For one thing, they consider themselves predominantly introverted. Additionally, she thinks they’re beyond the years when the social aspect of that congregate style of living would have been socially advantageous.
Age Brings Some Advantage
They’ve maintained contentment with their current quieter lifestyle and the lockdown hasn’t affected them as much as it would have in younger years. They never miss their exercise classes, but now they just do them online with Zoom instead of in person at the local senior center.
“In contrast, the younger families… now I feel really bad for what this has done to them,” she said.
SPOTLIGHT #3: “I’m A People Person”
published May 6, 2020
My 80-year-old friend with COPD and her husband have enjoyed living in their daughter’s home for a few years.
They have the luxury of living in a smaller part of a bigger home and normally they see their children and grandchildren often. They maintain their full independence but don’t have to do yard maintenance and heavier chores with the keep-up of a house.
This well-kept and beauty never smoked, but nonetheless, she was diagnosed with COPD about 5 years ago. “I think the signs were there long before that but finally the diagnosis was given.”
Had she been a smoker? No, but her father smoked heavily in her childhood home, so she breathed in second-hand smoke. In addition, she was raised in coal country near a “boney dump.” This was a pile of waste material removed during mining and often caught fire, smoldered, and fouled the air.
A Phone Call Isn’t The Same Thing
When she was asked by phone how she was actively aging through this crisis, she said, “I’m okay, but I miss my previous life. I’m sad about missing all my friends and seeing the people I usually see. I’m a people person. Most of my friends aren’t into new technologies and a phone call really isn’t the same as an in-person visit.”
Just So Scary
This thoughtful and other-oriented individual knows that viruses usually hit the elderly worst of all. With COPD, she knows that surviving this one might be an even bigger challenge than for other 80-year-olds.
“I just sit and think… it’s just so scary at times for many reasons. I feel so bad for people losing jobs and businesses losing everything. I never thought I’d see something like this in my lifetime. Sometimes I wonder why the rest of the people, the healthier ones can’t just go on?”
Working Things Through As An Extended Family
In fact, she knows that’s exactly what will be happening as states are “opening.” Her family already helps with necessary in-store shopping so she and her husband haven’t had to go out of the house. The daughter and son-in-law have assured the couple that they’ll work together to figure things out as they move forward. As a unit, this family will work to manage increased public interaction while doing their best to maintain healthy boundaries for the grandparents.
SPOTLIGHT #2: “I’m a Prisoner”
published April 30, 2020
I asked a 97-year-old gentleman living in a nursing care facility what it’s like to be actively aging through crisis. He told me he’s not actively doing anything.
As a nursing home patient, he had a long list of what he can NOT do. He said he can’t:
- mingle with other residents.
- go to an exercise room.
- get help with exercises in his room.
- take walks in the halls.
- go outside for fresh air.
- see his family.
He said, “I miss actually being next to someone. What is there to do here? I’m a prisoner now. That’s what this amounts to.” He says that all he prays for is to be with loved ones at least one more time before he dies. At 97, he knows each day further ahead is unknown and unlikely for him.
And he says he wants to break out of his jailhouse because he’d rather take his chances and feel freedom once again before he dies. Nonetheless, he also knows there is nowhere for him to go. He doesn’t drive and has no other home to go back to.
This white-haired veteran says phone calls are challenging because of his hearing loss, even with his hearing aids. “I need to see someone’s face to have a good conversation. I need to see lips move. I know I’m being heard if I see you. And I know when it’s my turn to speak. And now, I think my brain is becoming mush. I feel like I’m losing words because I’m not talking enough about ordinary things, only answering medical questions.”
“This is agonizing,” he reiterates.
Paradise Just Out of Reach
My senior friend has a window to a flowered courtyard but he’s not allowed to step outside. Window visits aren’t possible because it’s an interior window. If someone wants to give him a “window visit,” he has to make an appointment to go into a room (without other people) that has an exterior window. It all has to be arranged in advance at the convenience of the facility, which is short-staffed.
“I wish there was something to get excited about. There’s nothing to look forward to; nothing on the calendar. A little smoke or small fire would be uplifting right now. This life is torture.”
This senior facility has recently initiated virtual sessions for patients to see the faces of family or friends. With advance arrangements, a staff member brings a tablet owned by the facility into the patient’s room to call a loved one. Patients perk up when they get their “screen time” to see the face of someone they love and are more likely to be filled with hope. Unfortunately, a spontaneous session is impossible unless a patient has his or her own tablet and knows how to use it. A patient must necessarily “ask permission” for a time and a turn that is convenient for a caregiver.
SPOTLIGHT #1: “I’m Going to Live While I’m Living”
My 94-year-old friend told me what it’s like for him as he is actively aging through this crisis. He clearly sees himself as a survivor, not a victim.
He and his wife live independently in a suburban home west of Cleveland, Ohio and he assures me, “I’m not afraid at all. Much worse things have happened in my lifetime and I know things will get better again.”
His positive attitude is exemplified when he says, “I’m not going to be reckless. I’ll do what we’re asked to do, but I still go to the store with my wife to get what we need. I’m not living in fear.”
Life Lessons Learned Young
This older gentleman’s grandmother died of the Spanish flu in 1918, the pandemic that infected 1/3 of the world’s population at that time. It was especially deadly for healthy people 20-40 years old and it seemed to single out his grandmother, the woman of the household, leaving her husband a widower and her children motherless. They didn’t social distance themselves or use hand sanitizer but the other family members were unscathed.
“It’s just the way things happen sometimes,” he reminds me.
Good Health Looks Good
My friend keeps himself in the best shape possible, for himself and also for his wife who is 19 years younger. Both are previously widowed and they’ve now been remarried to each other for five years and are committed to enjoying life to the fullest extent possible. This delightful couple has already traveled extensively throughout the world and they both enjoy vacationing on cruises. In fact, they’re eager to reschedule the one they’re missing right now because of the shelter at home order.
Not only does this gentleman keep himself in shape by exercising regularly, but he also keeps up with his appearance and is arguably one of the best-dressed students in his exercise class. He sits and stands with tall posture and is never to be caught slouching.
Actively Aging: Expect a Long Life Ahead
“My kids thought I was crazy when I decided to remodel a bathroom last year. Why would someone my age do that? Well, it was inconvenient, but I’m still alive to enjoy it now, so I’m glad we did it. I want to live like I’ll have many more years ahead. I’m hoping for at least six more years.”
“I grew up during the Great Depression. That was followed by World War II, so the economy doesn’t worry me either. If you live long enough, it all comes back around again.”
Remembering the Past but Looking Foward
Looking back, he also recalls the two pandemics of the 1900s that he lived through. The Asian flu pandemic of 1957 claimed approximately 116,000 lives in the US, according to the CDC, and the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968–1970 claimed about 100,000 lives.
“I’ll just keep working to be healthy and I’m just not going to worry. I am certainly looking forward to getting back to my competitive bridge league someday. It keeps the brain sharp.”
NOTE: all photos in this post are stock photos and are NOT pictures of the persons interviewed. However, the 97-year-old from spotlight #2 celebrated his 95th birthday with Aging Gracefully TV in December 2017 and you can see that interview and celebration here.