There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you feel truly old. The message that people over 60 are extra vulnerable and should stay home is being said loudly, clearly and repeatedly. In Scotland, adults over 70 are being told not to leave their homes for 12 weeks. Locally, on Next Door, the social media platform for neighborhoods, younger people are posting reminders to check on their elderly neighbors and get groceries for them. Meanwhile, grocery stores are letting seniors shop an hour before the stores open to the general public.
On the one hand, I’m grateful that people are concerned, but there’s a part of me that wants to protest: I’m still strong and independent; I’m not frail or helpless. This week, I shoveled snow from my driveway. I can hike 2-3 miles a day, lift a kayak onto the roof of my car, prune my trees and chop up the wood. So it feels strange to be lumped suddenly into a category of people who are vulnerable to not just getting sick but dying. And it feels just as odd to be lumped into any category, as if all older adults are the same.
Obviously there is a wide range of differences between those who are 75 and still ski (like a friend of mine does) and those who are 65 but overweight and sedentary. But in this frightening pandemic, there is no room for subtlety; urgency requires a sledgehammer rather than a fine tool to figure out who is the most vulnerable. It’s a scientific fact that our immune systems get weaker as we age.
Fortunately, this pandemic favors another group I belong to. Introverts are happy to spend days at home, reading or listening to music. We don’t need—or even want—to be out partying on St. Pat’s Day. I do miss seeing friends, and I envy the Italians who are able to sing to each from across their narrow streets.
Although I can’t sing to my neighbors (who likely would not want to hear my renditions), I have a luxury that people living in crowded cities don’t have: a big yard with a view of the distant mountains—a yard where, on a warm spring day, I can sit outside with my book and listen to the birds sing and see the iris and crocus stalks start to emerge from the ground. Out here, in my yard, I don’t have to worry about social distancing.
Now, more than ever, I try to count my blessings. I don’t have two teen-age sons at home to feed (like my sister does). Because both my parents are gone, I don’t have to worry about them being abandoned in a nursing home. I’m not home alone, like so many single friends, with no one to talk to but their cat or dog. I’m not trying to fly anywhere, and I’m not stranded on a cruise ship. I’m not homeless, in prison or in an immigration facility, where my life would be more precarious.
My sister was out walking yesterday when a man stopped to ask her if she saw any silver linings in this pandemic. She lives in Illinois, one of the hardest-hit states. Apparently, this man was asking everyone he met on his walk the same question. She told him she was getting a lot of projects done at home. But when I think about it, the silver lining is that I’ll never take ordinary life—such as seeing friends or grocery shopping without fear—for granted again.