WHAT WE (HOPEFULLY) LEARNED FROM THE PANDEMIC
My sister Helen was a hidden covid victim.
Helen, who died recently at 95, never actually caught the virus until it was in decline; being fully vaccinated and well cared for, she had only a very mild case — and recovered. But like uncounted millions of seniors — and more than a few younger people — she was a victim of the pandemic.
Helen was a social creature. Her retirement community ran a weekly bus to the grocery store, but that didn’t work for Helen. The bus returned in an hour, by which time she had only begun her visits with the produce guy and the butcher, the shelf-stockers and the check-out lady. Her son-in-law drove her to the store and worked on his laptop until she finished.
“We’re not supposed to walk in the halls,” Helen reported during the worst of times. We had cross-country phone visits several times a week, but I was seldom able to cheer her up.
“This isn’t living,” she would say.
Living is interacting with fellow creatures. Even the four-legged kind. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA,) more than 23 million Americans adopted a pet during the pandemic; most of them are still with their newfound families. Depression among the elderly, though, even those with pets, was rampant.
One 80-something friend’s depression became so grave that her children — all of whom lived in other states — insisted she videoconference with her physician. He prescribed medication, but it was only minimally successful. “I’ve just lost any will to live I had,” she told me over the phone. “I’m not suicidal, but I go to sleep every night hoping not to wake up. We have no idea how long this lockdown is going to last.” Happily, she outlasted the pandemic and is shopping and lunching with friends (while staying on her meds). That puts her among the lucky ones.
For the frail, sick, or elderly, the pandemic was particularly punishing. Already suffering, additional isolation only made everything worse. Some, though, came up with creative solutions:
Two casual friends in a San Francisco retirement community had apartment doors across the hall from each other. They formed the habit of opening their doors and visiting once or twice a day during the lockdown. It brightened their days so much that they circulated a note throughout the building suggesting others do the same. There’s no data on how that worked out, but one of the original door-to-door visitors told me she knew of at least four others who picked up on the idea.
In an assisted living building, residents on several floors had music sessions, wherein they would open their doors, keep their masks on and sing. “Anybody could start something,” one reported; “the rest of us would join in. It was pretty awful, but we had a ball.”
On one urban block, a young man sat on his front steps during the lockdown and played jazz on his saxophone at 10 in the morning. Doors and windows opened; strangers waved.
Some of us simply walked. I walked for miles, daily as soon as total lockdown ended, across my beloved city. We nodded at each other; masked strangers passing on the strangely quiet streets. I never failed to be uplifted, just by our shared humanity.
We will have another pandemic. Hopefully not any time soon, but it will come. Maybe, along with the ongoing research into developing vaccines and protocols and financial solutions, we can address this existential reality:
People need people.