I’ve changed in six ways. How about you?
The lives of older people, like everyone else, have been upended by the pandemic. Back in December 2019, when we were first hearing about the virus, we never imagined that the world could be so completely shut down and transformed. And I never anticipated how dramatically I would change.
During this time, I have experienced a persistent, unremitting level of stress, unlike anything I have ever lived through before. Stress, just to be clear, is defined as a feeling of tension that is both physical and emotional in response to a challenge. And that is what living through the pandemic has felt like to me—an 18-month-long stress test.
There’s been a huge increase in health issues across the board. According to a poll commissioned by the Cleveland Clinic and Parade magazine, there has been a 55% increase in addictions and depression during the pandemic. The hardest hit is younger people. There has been a 74% increase in mental health problems in those 18 to 34 years. Older people seem to have experienced much lower levels of mental health issues. But we have changed in many ways.
Here are six ways that I am different today than I was 18 months ago—including my opinion about myself.
Change 1. I see myself now as a certifiably resilient person. I managed to live through months of stress without going off the rails. I am proud of how I managed the deprivations and requirements of the extreme social distancing that was required for 10 weeks at my retirement community. I was able to live through that time with only a few meltdowns. For 10 weeks I didn’t set foot outside my apartment. But I was one of the lucky ones in my retirement community because I had a partner to keep me company. The only other human being that we saw during those weeks was a staff person scurrying down the hall after leaving our dinner in a large paper bag at our doorway. We older people tolerated the restrictions that Covid-19 imposed on our lives with more equanimity than our kids or grandkids. Many of us grew up with scarcity and we have all lived through good times and bad. We know everything changes.
Change 2. I see myself as far more vulnerable than before Covid. The healthcare professionals and the media bombarded us for months about how we were the most vulnerable. I came to see myself as someone who needed extra protection to survive. Older people were the ones who were dying in the early months of the pandemic. It was not safe for us to leave home. I accepted never going to a store or restaurant, wearing masks, and washing my hands 20 times a day. No-fuss. No arguments from me. Well, that’s not quite true, when we were asked not to leave the apartment even to walk in the outdoors I did protest. There was talk from some government officials that older people should not get a ventilator if a younger person needed one… suggesting we were expendable. But, on the other hand, elders were a priority for early vaccinations.
I have been changed by all this. Even now, vaccinated, each foray into a public place requires an assessment of “Is it worth it?” In the wake of the pandemic, I have come to see all other people as potentially dangerous. Someone called this the Covid hangover. How long it will remain is not clear. All I can say is that my sense of vulnerability and new fear of the crowd has not gone away.
Change 3. I am choosing a simpler life. I find my life is less stressful with fewer choices and responsibilities. Without travel, shopping, theaters, and restaurants available to me for so many months, I discovered out that I enjoy more alone time. Simple holidays without all the fuss and the gifts were also unexpectedly pleasurable. Besides I have had enough to do with my writing, my clients, media appearances, and three or four regular Zoom meetings each week. After all these quieter months, it feels like more of an effort to bestir me and leave the apartment. Getting dressed to look presentable seems a bit daunting. Easier to just relax at home. I realize that having the promise of even more freedom again is a mixed blessing. Having more choices feels like a burden. And today, I am aware of the energy it takes to embrace the freedom that is coming my way.
Change 4. I have slowed down. I move more slowly. I am worse at multi-tasking than I was just a year ago. Of course, I say to myself, “Well, you are older, Katharine.” But I think it is the quieter life that has changed me. I am not so obsessed with being on time. I lose track of what day of the week it is, what the date is, and even what month it is. I have forgotten appointments far more often than before. Before Covid, people often said to me, “Katharine, you are walking so fast.” No one has said that to me for months. I have changed, no need to hurry. I want to savor the steps.
Change 5. I see more clearly than before that relationships are what matter most to me. On a day-to-day basis, it is Peter, my new love, who is sharing my journey. My large, scattered family makes more efforts to connect. We have begun family Zoom meetings and that is truly one of the positive developments during Covid-19. Most of my family live far away but now I am connecting to more of them more often by phone and more often one-to-one. Talking to them seems essential to my well-being. But I also seem to need to hear the voices of my friends of many years. I realize all of us are at risk, and vulnerable. And I feel the preciousness of friends and family as never before.
Change 6. Now I take more control over my daily life and its routines. I am clearer about what can be controlled by me and what is out of my control. I can’t control the course of the pandemic. What I can control is my daily life. With my simpler life, I am more successful with daily routines. I meditate for 20 minutes every day with few exceptions. I nap most days, which is new for me. And I take a walk or do Zumba every day. Living in Concord, I feel the presence of many transcendental spirits urging me to get outside and into the natural world. I heed their call and notice I am seeing more as I walk. I see more birds and hear more too.
These six changes feel important, as if I’ve directed my attention to the core of my life, to the people I love; to helping others to age well; to savoring being alive with more appreciation for my healthy behavior in challenging times. I am hoping that the peace I feel will become a permanent way of life for me. And for you, dear readers, I wonder if you also have experienced important changes. I would love to hear how it has been for you.