I’m old, lonely and vulnerable. But I won’t die on Zoom. | #dating | #elderly | #seniors
I’m in a lung cancer support group on Zoom. During our last meeting my young, healthy oncologist told us he’s self-isolating except for seeing patients. He can’t afford to get sick, he explained. His patients need him.
The support group facilitator, a woman in her 70s like me, who has battled cancer for 20 years said nothing. Neither did I. She and I had met in person for an early dinner at a waterfront restaurant in Palm Beach county the week before. We sat at an outdoor table, surrounded by other tables spaced 6 feet away, with mostly young diners and their children, many unmasked.
At first we wore our masks but then the margaritas and food came and we forgot about them. We stayed for two hours chatting and enjoying the beautiful day. I treasured every minute of it but wasn’t going embarrass her or myself by announcing it.
I’m in the highest risk group for COVID-19: elderly with pre-existing conditions. I embrace the importance of masks, social distancing, hand washing, and other measures to avoid exposure to coronavirus. I’m also in Florida — a state with one of the highest rates of coronavirus cases in the country. I take every precaution when I shop and go out, but in July I’ve met three different single friends my age at outdoor cafes for meals. I had two friends over to my place to watch movies.
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We are not irresponsible, we are all very well aware of the risks. We all have at least one pre-existing condition. It’s hard to get to this age with no health problems. We are all intensely paranoid about catching this disease and are careful to wear masks, keep our distance and do whatever we can — except stay home 24/7. After months of isolation, it’s worth the risk of death to get out of the house.
In the United States, 27% of people aged 60 and older live alone. Many of us, especially women, had to cope with loneliness pre-pandemic.
I’m divorced with no family nearby and a history of depression. A persistent sense of dread has always been my constant companion, but it has gotten a lot worse since COVID-19. Before the pandemic I fended off despair by keeping busy and being social — going places and doing things with people. But when the lockdown started I spiraled downhill. I couldn’t even go out and take a walk due to arthritis — another constant companion. I usually got my exercise — and mood elevation — swimming, but they’d closed the pools in my condo.
So, in desperation, I drove to the beach and found a spot to sit and watch the people walk by so at least I’d get to see real human beings, breathe salt air and look at the ocean — which reminded me there was an entire world outside of my apartment. I went shopping at the supermarket — masked, of course — for stuff I didn’t need just to get out of the house. I longed to get coffee at Panera Bread and drink it outside but they’d removed the tables. Finally, Florida moved into stage 1 and then stage 2 of reopening. Foolishly, as it happened. But I thank God and our homeowners association every day for reopening the pools, which made my existence tolerable.
A loneliness epidemic
I haven’t moved back into lockdown and neither have the intrepid among my older friends. We are still sneaking out to dinner. One friend even flew to Milwaukee to see her family and she babysits her granddaughter here. Another friend, who refused to leave her house at all at the beginning of the pandemic, is now going out to dinner with me, even though she still won’t enter a store. A lot has been written about the power of touch to relieve loneliness. But gathering over a meal is a primal human way of connecting. The simple act of meeting a friend for dinner makes me feel that life is worth living.
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A lot of single people of all ages are lonely now. As many as 35.7 million Americans live alone and an April survey found about a third of people feel more lonely because of the coronavirus. Couples and families really can’t understand what single, especially older, people are going through. I remember being young and lonely and I can attest that old and lonely is a lot worse. Young people have a future — I don’t. Or not many years of one anyway. Zoom is not cutting it for me. In some ways it makes me lonelier to face people I know on a screen, but who I can’t touch or even interact naturally with.
Sitting alone at home hoping I won’t get sick and die is simply not worth it. Loneliness itself can kill — one study estimates the health impacts of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. There is also evidence that perceived social isolation accelerates cognitive decline and may be connected to cancer mortality risk. I don’t know if I’ll be around when this pandemic is over. I don’t care to spend the time I have left staring at a screen.
I hope there will be a vaccine eventually, but in the meantime I plan to eat, drink and be merry — in socially distant, responsible ways of course — with whoever wants to join me.
Erica Manfred is a Florida-based freelance journalist, humorous essayist and author. She is the author of “I’m Old So Why Aren’t I Wise, Snarky Senior in the Sunshine State,” “He’s History You’re Not; Surviving Divorce After 40” and other books.