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?
Since then, I’ve made it a point, when I encounter others on the path, of stepping off and loudly saying (through my mask) hello or waving. If they’ve stepped off the trail for me, I thank them loudly. Yet each encounter feels slightly tense, as if my presence requires some action on their part. Or maybe they regard me, as an older person statistically more susceptible to the coronavirus, with some suspicion. Maybe I’m a reminder of the deadliness of this disease, as if they spotted the grim reaper coming down the trail.
Many writers on aging have noted that this pandemic is exacerbating ageism. As public health agencies warn that those most susceptible to COVID-19 are people over 60, we seniors are being lumped into a category of people who are helpless, weak and close to death (even as some 70-year-olds might be healthier than a sedentary 35-year-old). More than ever before, I feel I’m the “other”—separate from the rest of humanity because of my age and vulnerability to disease.
I appreciate my fellow hikers and walkers who are considerate enough to give me a wide berth on the trail, but I want nothing more than to go back to normal, to a time when an older woman hiking on a path was nothing to fear—or even notice.