AFS Blog



Editor's Note: By Nancy K. Schlossberg, Professor Emerita, University of Maryland, author of Too Young to be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as you Age. American Psychological Association, 2017.

We are in the midst of a dramatic transition. Before we were encouraged to keep our ‘dance card’ full, and now we are experiencing a world where isolation is a necessity and there is no touching. The spread of the disease has forced us into this unexpected, unwanted transition that is changing our way of being in the world. It is filled with ambiguity, has no end point, and is out of our control.

My understanding of the pandemic’s effect on older people is guided by my research on numerous transitions, plus my volunteer work with the Senior Friendship Centers in Sarasota, Florida. As co-leader with Michael Karp, retired lawyer, our group, The Aging Rebels, discuss issues of intimacy, loneliness, invisibility, irrelevance… and now, the impact of Covid-19.

For example, Jill’s husband’s dementia is accelerating. He sleeps most of the time, except for weekly visits to the grocery store. She is afraid to leave him since he falls. As she said, “If I knew when this would end, maybe I could relax. I feel like spaghetti without the sauce.”

The pandemic transition

keep your dance card fullA transition can be an event like the pandemic or retirement or great grandparenthood. But it can also be a non-event, like not getting to retire as planned, missing the birth of a great grandchild or the delay in your daughter’s wedding. In either case, a transition has the effect of changing our assumptions, routines, roles, and relationships (Schlossberg, 2017, p.46).

Changing Assumptions: Michael Karp summed up his changing assumptions: What will the new normal look like when this is behind us? How will we, as people, communicate with each other? Will we continue to practice safe distancing? Will we ever again hug and embrace a good friend? Will this experience teach us more about the meaning of love and provide more compassion for others? Will this make us more sensitive to making the planet a safer place?”

Changing Routines: Marcia and her significant other Stan, both in their mid-80s, had a monogamous relationship but lived in separate apartments. Instead of weathering the crisis alone, they offer each other mutual support and make the best of the situation by ascending to the roof of her apartment building to dance free-style.

Myra lives in a senior community with a great deal of outdoor space. During this period, she and several others agreed to meet every night at 7 pm to bike around the property. This provides structure to her evenings, provides socialization, and is fun.

Changing Roles: Carol, a 67-year-old nurse practitioner in a medical clinic, had to give up community outreach and educational projects to become a virtual and phone clinician. She is pleased she can Interact virtually with patients and their families, but she suffers from the loss of human contact, both with patients and with clinic staff.

Changing Relationships: Loss or weakening of attachments as a result of social distancing and isolation is one of the biggest challenges.

On the negative side, I feel the loss of physical, in-person connection with my children and grandchildren. Zoom and FaceTime are great, but they do not substitute for the visit my daughter and two grandchildren had to cancel because of the virus.

On the positive side, Henry, 82, one of The Aging Rebel members wrote: We have the luxury of using this enforced down time for reading, conversation, and reflection on our life past and future. We grieve for the many neighbors who have a less comfortable present and an uncertain future.

Paths to the future

For the elderly who are poor, unemployed, homeless, or suffering from chronic illness, the change occurring now is almost certainly exaggerating the difficulties they already faced. Within this group, the ones who suffer the most are those with fewer financial and emotional resources.

Seniors can respond to the transition by analyzing the degree to which their life has changed, and then strategize ways to shore up the weak spots to enhance their prospects for the future. For example, if a planned retirement is delayed – maybe forever – a worker will probably experience a period of grieving for what might have been. If the pandemic has forced a change in our routines, we can develop a new structure for the day. If the change has interrupted relationships, we can stay in touch – if not by physical touch, instead by e-mail, phone, or Zoom. And most important, when our assumptions have been shattered, we must strive to realize today is not forever, and we will survive this.

There’s a tendency to focus on the litany of negatives that the virus has brought to the lives of older people. However, ‘The New Normal’ will not necessarily be all gloomy. In a recent Zoom meeting with The Aging Rebels, one woman said, “I was frightened about living alone, but I see that I can be alone and be happy.” Another said, “I am learning how to filter out the unimportant and realize I am self-reliant.”

Since the disease has intruded on so many aspects of our lives, we see the beginnings of improved outreach to the isolated. For example, volunteers for the Senior Friendship Centers call all their participants regularly to check on them, offer suggestions about free food delivery, and answer their questions. In addition, many individuals have pro-actively learned to reduce stress and loneliness by incorporating activities such as meditation, yoga, and exercise into their routines. Finally, the virus has compelled many of us to see this as a pause – a ‘moratorium’ period in which we ponder what we want from the future.

No one can predict exactly how much the assumptions, routines, roles, and relationships of our daily lives will change. But this enforced opportunity for individuals to pause, reflect, and even to plan, may ultimately amount to a collective focus that will eventually reveal how each of us wants to, and will, live that future. Let us hope that someday we will once again be able to keep our dance cards full.


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