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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Confessions of a Hoarder

The instinct to hoard is in my genes. My Czech grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, saved everything. When she moved into a nursing home, my mother and I went through her house to get rid of stuff she wouldn’t need. I still remember, 40 years later, finding huge glass jars full of small items like rubber bands. One jar had nothing but bits of string, some as short as 4 or 5 inches long. After growing up in a time when people had almost nothing, she knew the value of pieces of string. You never knew when you would need to tie them together to make something useful.

My German great-grandfather came to this country from Europe as a young man. As a child, I would watch him eat every drop of food off his plate, as if it had been washed clean. In the old country, his family were peasants, never knowing if they would have enough to eat. In today’s language, they would have been called “food insecure.”

To this day, I can’t waste food. Even if a piece of cheese is going bad, I’ll carefully cut around the edges to eat what’s still good. It horrifies me when I see restaurant diners eating only a portion of their meal and not taking the rest home, which means perfectly good food is being thrown away. I’ve taken home friends’ meals when they didn’t want theirs, even when I didn’t particularly like their choices of entree.

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Aging in Place

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.

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