Happy New Year! 2021 is finally here and while I’ve never been more ecstatic to watch the ball drop in Times Square, I know a number does not a miracle make. As much as we crave instant relief from the dumpster fire that was 2020 and the pandemic that defined it, unfortunately none of the remedies are simple, or fast.
These times have been hard on everyone. I know I’ve officially become the “curtailer of fun” in the lives of my teenagers. According to my kids, “other parents are not nearly as strict” about distancing through this pandemic. I’m “paranoid” and overly worried and I’m “ruining their lives.” Which is ironic because I’m trying to protect their lives. And mine. I also gave them life if my memory serves me correctly.
I understand my kids are suffering. They’ve missed a huge chunk of the developmental aspect of their teen years – after losing a sizable chunk during the Thomas Fire evacuations and ensuing debris flow. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. It sucks.
More Than a Quarter of Montecito is Age 65+
But it’s not our kids I’m most worried about. It’s our folks. Our grandparents. Our seniors. Members of our community who’ve been tucked away and rendered silent for almost a year, during a time of life when connectedness and stimulation are more important than ever. My sense is that nursing home patients quarantined by COVID are instead dying of loneliness and boredom. Is it possible to die of boredom? At the very least boredom accelerates decline.
My Family’s Story of Isolation – but Not an Isolated Story
In April it will be two years since we moved my husband’s parents from their apartment of 55 years in New York City to one of Santa Barbara’s larger long-term care facilities – touted for its good food, high standard of care, and broad social opportunities. Until he was 90 when a fall confined him to a wheelchair, my father-in-law was a practicing and highly regarded psychiatrist married for 60 years to my mother-in-law – an accomplished and prolific artist. Together they were beginning to need more physical assistance and their care was difficult to manage from afar. As a family we decided we could be of greater help living in closer proximity. The delicious icing on the cake for my in-laws would be more time with their sons and grandchildren – whom they now have not seen in person in almost a year. They are painfully bored, under-stimulated and horribly homesick for their former lives in New York – where they raised their family and were surrounded by the artifacts of a life well lived.
Instead, they find themselves confined to their institutional apartment with human contact limited to the constantly rotating attendants who enter their room to provide the best care an overworked and underpaid staff can offer. A few nights ago, they were delivered a cold pizza for dinner. Other nights it’s more interesting than that, but only slightly. My husband, guilt-ridden for having brought his folks to this place that has become an unexpected form of incarceration, in a bit of gallows humor commented that given the quality of the meals they’re getting, the notion of them losing their taste and smell doesn’t sound that bad.
That’s just my family’s story. But everyone has their own version – elderly friends and loved ones isolated and lonely – deserving of so much more “golden” than this sad time can offer. It occurs to me that in the same way we’re prioritizing who gets the vaccine first, we also need to look at where and how we focus our emotional support, so critical to our isolated seniors. But how to deliver it in this time of crisis and lockdown?
5 Life Hacks and Work Arounds for Our Isolated Elderly
Care Packages and Fresh Food Drop-offs. While personal visits are dangerous during the pandemic surge, we’ve found that dropping off fresh fruit and vegetables or home-cooked meals provides a boost and lets loved ones know that they have not been forgotten.
Video Communication. Sure, it’s not like being there, but it’s the best work around we’ve got. Regular family Zooms or Facetime calls provide a huge mood boost for us all. Some tech help may be needed.
Distance Performances. Can you get within viewing distance of grandma or grandpa or neighbors? In many cases you can. In which case make some signs and banners and show up on special occasions. Sing a song. Wave. Blow kisses.
Book Club and Movie Club! Many seniors in isolation aren’t “doing” a lot. And their weak technology skills make it tricky to navigate online stimulation and connection. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take great stimulating journeys of the imagination. One thing my husband has been doing is reading the same book separately but simultaneously with his dad, which they discuss in the evenings. Okay it’s not playing catch at the end of Field of Dreams, but they do lob back and forth some pretty lofty ideas – Grandpa (who got his MD at 20) is no slouch!
Class ReZoomions. We were surprised when a classmate of my father-in-law reached out to him with an alumni contact list showing that at least 25 of grandpa’s 75 classmates, each more than 90 years old, are still alive. So we are organizing a class ReZoomion, which takes a little doing, but it is bringing a bunch of near centenarians a lot of joy and hope.
Finally, Our New Column Featuring Montecito’s Octogenarian+ All Stars. Our culture has a bifurcated almost schizophrenic attitude towards its seniors. On the one hand, many of our leaders are octogenarians or near octogenarians: Fauci (80), Pelosi (80), Breyer (82), and McConnell, who is about to turn 79. Trump will be 75 and Biden is 78. Warren Buffett is 90 and still the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. On the other hand, so many seniors who have not achieved notoriety seem to fade into invisibility aided by a culture that celebrates the new and generally disposes of the old. (For those keeping track, Prince Philip is 99 and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, is 94. The QE2 ocean liner, the Queen’s namesake, was constructed of welded steel and used as a troop transporter in the Falklands War and lasted less than half as long.
Montecito is blessed to have so many incredible seniors in our midst. Their stories are inspired and inspiring and deserve to be told. Starting next week, Montecito Journal writer Zach Rosen will begin a new column bringing to light the rich stories behind some of the incredible seniors in our community. Late last year, The Montecito Journal Glossy magazine cover story featured local resident Jeanne Thayer, today 104, who, among other aspects of her colorful life, was an instrumental strategist during the U.S. war in the Pacific. For a year or two, I had the pleasure of reading with Jeanne on Wednesday mornings. She loved it and got a lot out of it. But I’ll bet you anything I got more.
Do you know a senior whose story the Montecito Journal should tell? If so, please contact Zach Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.