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Smoothing Your Way Through the COVID-19 Transition

Smoothing Your Way Through the COVID-19 Transition

For the last two months, I have effectively been prohibited from joining friends for dinner at a restaurant, meeting with members of the Aging Rebels group I co-lead, having my hair cut in a salon, and basking in the art collection at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, where I live. I was denied these and other routine pleasures by federal and local guidelines designed to protect the community's health and my own.

When I was invited to celebrate my birthday at a gathering with family and friends, I knew that attending could fly in the face of all the medical advice about how to protect ourselves from COVID-19. Now the norms for our daily lives are in flux.

Put another way, we are clearly in the middle of a transition. The virus has forced Americans to make important, unexpected changes in our daily life. For several months, we had clear expectations about what to do to stem the pandemic. For most of us, there was no choice about whether to follow the guidelines if we were able to do so in the confines of our homes. When the transition to a stay-at-home society started—a transition designed to alter, i.e., improve our response to a deadly disease, we just did it.

Recently this COVID-19 transition has entered another stage: moving from strict guidelines about what to do into a period (who knows how long) filled with ambiguity and ups and downs. As The New York Times reported on June 5, "The United States has crossed an uneasy threshold, with all 50 states beginning to reopen in some way after the coronavirus thrust the country into lockdown." Now we are suddenly faced with choices. The president and many of our governors are telling us to leave our homes and to go to restaurants and shops and spend money. At the same time, epidemiologists send out warning signals that it is too soon, and that the possibility of a second wave of the virus is real.

Anthropologists call the period we are in liminal space…the transition from what has been to what will be. The word liminal comes from the Latin root, limen, which means threshold. So liminal space is the "crossing over" space — where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully in something else. (Google dictionary.) And that is exactly where we are now. We are betwixt and between. We had established new social rules and norms, and now they are being shaken. Choices have become difficult. Should I go out to celebrate my birthday? Should I go shopping? Should I march in a peaceful protest? We know where we were but not where we are going.

Here are a few examples of decisions confronting the Aging Rebel group's members as they consider how far to "put their toes in the water."

Henry and his wife have been isolating the past few months. Recently, he received a phone call from a member of his church choir inviting him to join them when they meet for the first time since the shutdown in a nearby park. Tempting as it was, he declined and told them, "I want to socialize, but I need to play it safe." Another member of the group, Virginia, offered to host anyone for a visit to Selby Gardens. She reported there was so much to see, and we can stay far apart. Irene responded, "I love the idea of Selby, but I'm reluctant to go. I've taken such good care." And Pat chimed in saying, "My confusion is when to prepare for the trip back to California. How do I make the decision?"

Individuals will respond to this liminal period in different ways. Our responses will depend on our resources, both material and psychological. Some people are rich, others poor; some healthy, others disabled; some young, others older; some will thrive, others may suffer to varying degrees.

Trying to figure out what makes the difference in our responses, I identified four aspects of our lives that are central to coping with any transition. Each individual has these potential resources—Situation, Supports, Self, and Strategies—to defray the cost of change. These potential resources—what I label the 4 S's—help explain the differences in how individuals handle any change. Asking ourselves how we stand with regard to each of these factors can improve our understanding of a transition and how to cope with it.

So how can we make use of the 4 S's as the country moves into new phases of the "reopening"? How can this tool help us cope with this transition and enhance our chances of emerging from it with our mental and physical health intact? The above reference to the dilemma of how to celebrate my birthday is a real-life example I confronted recently. Here are the questions I posed to myself to arrive at a decision.

Situation: How do you view the transition? What is going on in your life during this time of change? Do you face multiple stresses, or does your daily life feel stable and calm?

I am fortunate to live in a retirement complex where, despite the vulnerability of people in my age group, no one has had the virus. With rare, protected exceptions, all of us have stayed at home, avoiding the possibility of bringing the virus in from outside. This has helped me to feel relatively calm in the face of the crisis as well as ambiguity about the future.

Self: What are your inner resources, your personal strengths? How do you deal with change? Are you optimistic, resilient, able to deal with ambiguity? How have you navigated transitions in the past?

I consider myself an optimistic person but also a practical one. I am hopeful that both a cure and a vaccination for COVID-19 will be found soon. But as much as I want to hug my grandchild rather than just watch her on a video screen, I realized that attending a party with a number of guests could expose me to people who have had contact with the virus.

Supports: What people and activities can you count on for support during this transition? Do you have friends and family who may help you through the changes?

My living environment, fortunately, provides both the psychological support of friendly neighbors and the opportunity to socialize—in effect, stay at home—with others who face the same challenges I do and who have been following the COVID-19 guidelines.

Strategies: How do you cope with transitions? Do you employ a range of strategies, such as talking to others, gathering information, or participating in a support group? Or do you tend to rely mostly on your own personal resources?

To keep my professional brain working and reinforce personal relationships, I use video technology for meetings with the Aging Rebels, a group I co-lead at a senior center in Sarasota. Frequent socially-distanced meals with a limited number of neighbors keep my spirits up. Zoom video conferencing and phone calls help me stay in close contact with my family. Yet, I really miss seeing them.

Thinking through the 4S's helped me arrive at a compromise decision: To celebrate with family only, taking as many precautions as possible. I drove myself, we met for lunch at a club, at an outside, socially-distanced table, and we wore masks except while eating. The only people with me were my son, my daughter-in-law, and my granddaughter. It was great to be with them, even if I could not engage in hugs.

As we advance into this new phase of reopening, we will face more of these types of decisions, and in many cases, they will be much more challenging. People will be asking: Should I return to work in a store, an office, or a plant where employees have had the virus? Is it time to resume the after-work happy hour in a bar down the street? Is it necessary for me to pray inside my church building, even if the governor has not required social distancing in the sanctuary? Should I fly cross-country to take the summer vacation I planned, or just try to get a refund on the plane ticket?

There is never just one right answer to questions that force us to choose between our health and our economic status, let alone the normal routines that add happiness to our lives. But there are things we can do to alleviate the stress that so often accompanies transitions: Try to avoid impulsive decisions. Instead, do the best you can to strengthen your Situation, Supports, Self, and Strategies to prepare for when the next challenge confronts you.

And there will be challenges. From our vantage points of spotty compliance with the requirements of Phase One or Phase Two as laid out by the White House, and predictions of a "second wave," we can see that this transition to the as-yet-undefined "new normal" is going to be with us for a long time.



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