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.
Thanks for bringing this common experience into the open, Kathy. At least, since I recognize it so instantly and completely, I assume that we can’t be the only two old women who encounter this kind of ageism. Worse still is the way I notice myself internalizing it. As I navigate my daily walks among people who seem largely to be ignoring all pandemic precautions, I feel more and more like a batty old broad with OCD. Was that a smirk I saw on the faces of the group of teenagers sauntering by, unmasked and clearly not distancing? Or was it just a friendly smile? Did that young man roll his eyes when I detoured off the path and on to the grass to maintain six feet of space between us? Whatever the case, I’m finding myself increasingly isolated in a generational sense, as well as literally.
Thanks, Jennifer. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one. I read recently that seniors who experience ageism live shorter lives. But I don’t know how to counteract it.
Well, I too have felt the same way in some encounters — OCD batty old broad. But to put some positive spin on it, I’ve also had encounters on the trail where I’ve felt a sense of kindness, respect, and consideration with the younger people giving me a wider berth — especially when there’s a mutual friendly greeting. It’s the whole range in these strange times that expose us to the best and worst of humanity.
Reed, I agree. I appreciate all those younger people who step aside, even if it does make me feel like an old lady.