By Evan Krame
Covid-19 has been devastating for our elders. Our parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, are suffering terribly from loneliness and fear. My mother’s friends are saying, I’d rather die than live like this. Is the generation that survived the Great Depression, World War Two, the Cold War, and the culture wars, giving up the will to live?
A grieving daughter reported to me that her mother died of solitude. The cancer treatments no longer held hope. Hope for what – more loneliness. Confinement in a small apartment at a senior residence was too painful. Food was unappetizing and life was no longer interesting. The cancer was a condition, Seclusion was the death sentence.
In a pandemic, sleep is fleeting and nights become times to lament. The morning brings another round of solitude and grief, now exacerbated by exhaustion. Every family fight and psychological trauma can easily reemerge in a time of isolation. Time to think can be time to dissemble. Quibbles become arguments. Jealousies become rivalries. And the silence can be deafening.
At the beginning of the pandemic there was a shock of enthusiasm to help our neighbors. Offers to shop were frequent at first. Food could be dropped off at your door, but personal visits were prohibited. And quickly many were relying on delivery services. You cannot order human connection on an app. You cannot nurture a relationship on Amazon.
Baby boomers and generations X, Y and Z, can and will offer sensible advice. Take up a hobby. Develop a skill. Take a class on Zoom. Learn to play piano. I have an 85-year-old uncle who has taken up painting. Bravo! An example of someone who has put this time to use. He is one example.
The reality is that many seniors want to feel competent in the life they have known, not reinvent themselves for a time of isolation. How many puzzles do you want to complete? How much of Rachel Maddow’s neck can you really admire? How many interesting meals can you create with arthritic hands and limited stock? Is it worth figuring out how to sign on to Netflix?
How does one thrive rather than endure when weeks of isolation become months of incarceration?
Americans, and particularly middle-class folk, are obsessed with finding ways to preserve health. If you cannot go to the gym, you can go outside. If you can no longer run, you can go for walks. Well, at least you carry your trash out and check your mail, that is exercise too!
The fascination with longevity has roots in the Jewish tradition that implores us to choose life and offers toasts “L’chaim – to life”. How long have you lived? How wonderful that you’ve added another digit to your age. What a blessing to reach this milestone! Like Moses, you should live one hundred and twenty years
What happens when long life is more a curse than a blessing? How does it feel to swallow statins and blood pressure pills to maintain a weary and bored existence? Is medicine prolonging life or forestalling death? Pain relievers do nothing to quell the existential angst which may be far more devastating.
Here’s where guilt has become my heavy burden. Did I shut my elderly parent out? Did I lock them in? Did I worry more about the spread of virus than I did about the curse of depression?
Are we killing seniors with the “kindness” of fortification from covid-19?
I’ve been taught that a parent deserves our utmost attention. To a fault, my family demonstrated devotion to fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts. As a child, every Sunday was a visit to grandparents. As a parent, my children had extraordinarily close relationships with all of their grandparents.
My mother is among the last of a generation of her family. They revered their elders. They argued prodigiously. They ate weekly meals together. They drove each other crazy. The ongoing family connection was a lifeline.
Mother’s surviving friends from childhood are few. Among the remaining first cousins, one is senile and another is banned. Old friends suffer similarly. Phone conversations about illnesses and disappointments are maddening.
A visit to CVS, an outing to Costco, and a trip to the supermarket are all that hold interest now. Perhaps the excitement of shopping is the possibility of getting sick. That is one potential exit from the extreme distress of being lonely in a pandemic.
Evan Krame, is a special needs lawyer and mid-career rabbi, who founded The Jewish Studio in suburban Maryland, a creative approach to Judaism for adults only, focusing on making their Jewish experiences enjoyable and meaningful.