Just Pass Me By

It’s tricky enough being an older person navigating a world that belongs to the young. But in this time of pandemic, it’s becomes even more problematic. A few weeks ago, I was walking on a path near my home, when a group of children and their mothers were heading straight for me. When we saw each other, we all froze in place, unsure of what to do. Because the path had a ditch on either side, I couldn’t move off the path and keep our distance at the prescribed six feet or more. Finally, I squeezed myself as close to the ditch as possible, and they silently walked by.

In normal times, they would have seen me smile, and I likely would have made some conversation, like “How are you doing?” or “Beautiful day,” but the mask prevented them from seeing that I was happy to encounter a bunch of children enjoying this spring day, and anything I said would have been muffled. The situation felt awkward, and after they passed me, I heard one little girl say: “Some people are just jerks.” Was she referring to me or someone else?

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Suffering Alone

For the past few months, hardly a day goes by that I’m not grateful that my mother died last August. I miss her, of course, but if she were still alive she would be sequestered in her apartment at the senior facility where she lived for the last three years of her life. Without visits from her children and grandchildren, and suffering from moderate dementia, her suffering would have been immense.

Even without the pandemic and lockdown, many seniors are isolated. Even those who, like my mother, lived in senior living facilities have to endure loneliness. Although there are plenty of opportunities for social interaction—dining with other residents, participating in yoga and art classes, going to the occasional concert—they are still isolated from the rest of the world. Visits with family or friends are the only ties to the outside world. When that is cut off, as it has during this pandemic, life can become very empty.

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Who Lives? Who Dies?

At a time when our resources, especially medical, are being stretched thin, everyone from politicians to health care workers have raised the issue of who lives and who dies in this pandemic. It’s a choice doctors and nurses are having to make every day in hospitals that are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients and where ventilators and other medical resources are scarce. Some politicians have even suggested that the cost of a few elderly people dying is less than halting our whole economy. Younger people have referred to the pandemic as the “boomer remover.”

Although shocking, it raises the question: is a young person’s life more valuable than an older person’s? In strictly biological terms, the answer is yes, because younger people are able to perpetuate our species; they can have children and raise families and are able to contribute to the economy. Those of us who are retired, even if we volunteer, are taking more than we’re giving: living off the fruit of our life-long labors.

And yet there’s a cultural value to the accrued wisdom of older people. In more traditional societies, it was the elders who carried with them the vast knowledge of survival: where to find food and shelter and how to keep peace and when to make war. In the animal kingdom,  elephant herds are often led by the older matriarch, the one that knows, for example, where to find watering holes when the land is dry.

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