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‘I’m a hand-shaker’: Many older Americans are playing down the coronavirus threat while others opt for safety

As experts plead for social distancing, some seniors continue to get together for movies, Zumba and concerts.

Residents and visitors dance as a band plays Wednesday in Lake Sumter Landing Market Square in The Villages, Fla. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)

At her home in The Villages, a sprawling central Florida retirement community that overlaps three counties, Alicia Przybylowicz still greets neighbors with a big smile and an outstretched hand. “I’m a hand-shaker. I think I will always be a hand-shaker and a hugger,” the 64-year-old said. Worries about the coronavirus aren’t going to stop that. “It seems that it’s been blown out of proportion.”

Not far away, at a house in the same community, Judy Nieman, 66, said that attitude is alarming. “We don’t know how this is going to spread in this community,” she said. “We’re all older here. This place is full of people who go on cruises all the time. They go on safaris. And I don’t see them curtailing their activities as much as I would.”

Nieman is playing it safe, ordering groceries online and popping open her car trunk at Walmart for workers to stuff it with bags. Before entering another store to buy beef and ribs, Nieman cleans the shopping-cart handle with a sanitizing wipe.

As the coronavirus continues its spread across the world and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that older Americans are among those who face the highest risk of hospitalization and death, retirees from Florida to Alaska are weighing whether to continue living their normal lives or do whatever it takes to preserve them.

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The Villages is one of the largest retirement developments in the United States, with 125,000 residents living on more than 15,000 acres. When asked on the “Villages Friendly Folks” Facebook page how they were managing the coronavirus, a majority of people sided with Przybylowicz, saying the crisis is being overblown.

Against mounting advice from federal and private health experts, many expressed a determination to move forward with travel excursions, such as cruises. But that is getting harder to do.

In recent days, the industry bowed to a federal directive forcing passengers 70 and older to provide a doctor’s note proving their fitness to sail. Two cruise operators, Princess and Viking, suspended operations for 60 days because of the coronavirus.

On Wednesday night, as President Trump was announcing a travel ban from Europe to the United States, hundreds of residents at The Villages freely roamed the sprawling property. Partygoers danced to the live music presented nightly, ignoring the warnings of the CDC to practice social distancing — “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings” and maintaining a distance of about six feet to guard against infection.

“We’re living the last third of our lives,” Sal Gentile, 70, wrote in response to a Washington Post inquiry. “We’re bolder, not older. Time to be mindful. Take a deep breath and enjoy life. We worked many decades to now have the privilege of being older. … Yep, I have a pacemaker and recent fusion; however my love for quality of life is more important to me than being rattled by a TV station.”

When her book club canceled its cruise to the western Caribbean, with one of the 10 club members worried about getting sick and others worried about getting stuck at sea amid a potential outbreak, Przybylowicz was a little miffed.

“For me, that would’ve just extended my vacation,” she said. “As long as someone was feeding me and changing my bed, I would be fine.” She said she thinks the ships are sanitized and safe.

“There’s no reason we can’t go,” she said. “People are too worried. The flu has killed more people than the coronavirus, and people haven’t been as concerned over the flu.”

As the coronavirus continues to spread, phrases like “quarantine,” “isolation” and “social distancing” are making news. Here are the key differences of each. (Video: The Washington Post)

A significant number of other residents said they were heeding experts’ advice and canceling cruise reservations, or at least waiting to see whether cruise lines would do so. Nearly 50 million Americans are 65 or older, according to the census, and how aging retirees alter their plans and habits will affect almost every corner of the economy, particularly in the travel industry.

AARP estimates that Americans age 50 and over spend more than $149 billion each year on leisure travel. According to the group, large numbers of boomers plan trips around the country and abroad each year, often spending many thousands of dollars each on their adventures.

“Travel is really the top aspiration of older Americans,” said Bill Walsh, an AARP vice president. “It means a lot to them, and it means a lot to the travel industry as well. But these are not normal times we are living in.”

At Road Scholar, a Boston-based educational travel tour company that caters largely to older adults, most trips are going forward for now, aside from those to countries where authorities have restricted travel.

“Because things are evolving so rapidly, we’ve put together a task force that meets daily to assess the situation,” Stacie Fasola, a Road Scholar spokeswoman, said in an email. She noted that the company has been posting updates online that provide travelers the most current advice to help them decide what to do.

Despite resistance from many older Americans to curtailing their activities, other seniors said they are fine exactly where they are — at home. At the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield, Va., Wanda Hill, 92, was gladly heeding the call for older residents to hunker down: “I’m very comfortable.”

Hill praised the administrators who have put out robocalls and appeared on the community’s local TV station with updates each day. For example, she said, residents were asked not to invite family members or friends to visit if they have recently traveled outside the country. When her son came from New York for a recent visit, he was asked about his travels before being allowed past the front gate.

The community’s several restaurants have remained open, as have its pharmacy and grocery store. Church services and bingo games still draw crowds. Residents continue to learn Spanish and play pickleball. But that could change, and Hill knows it.

“I’ve got a television and DVDs. The [Washington] Post has gotten so big that it takes me two hours to read that every day,” she said. “I’m perfectly happy to spend the whole day right here in my apartment.”

Other aging Americans are preparing, as well.

Although there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in Alaska yet, the staff at the 35,000-square-foot Anchorage Senior Activity Center is preparing for what might come. The community hub bustles with daily classes, a fitness center, social events, a library and a restaurant.

Rebecca Parker, the executive director, said in an interview that the center recently switched to disposable paper products in the restaurant to cut down on potential transmission. Employees are wearing gloves. Hand sanitizer has been added throughout the building, and impossible-to-miss signs hang on doors and mirrors reminding visitors to wash their hands long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

But there are more intimate changes at the center, which is the heart of its members’ social life, where they see friends and loved ones.

“There are some people who still want to hug. I hug them, but I don’t expect everybody to,” Parker said. “And I probably need to step back a little myself.”

Back at The Villages, Barbara St. Lawrence Combs is also inching back, little by little.

“We are told in The Villages that we live ‘in the bubble,’ ” she said. “That would be great, but we know better when watching the news about this scare.” For now, she is taking only a few precautions, “fist-bumping instead of hugging and shaking hands with our friends,” Combs said. “We are in our 70s and are healthy but don’t want to take any chances.” A planned family trip to Key West was canceled because of the crowds there.

Nieman said she was less worried about herself — “when I go to the doctor, I get a clean bill of health most every time” — but her next-door neighbors are in their 80s. She is afraid of getting infected by the coronavirus and unintentionally spreading it to friends who are even more vulnerable.

“I’m real protective of them,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen to them.”

She wonders why her friends who say they will be fine aren’t thinking beyond themselves when they travel and return.

“They go everywhere.” Nieman said. “Viking cruises, safaris, huge trips all over the world. And I worry about being around all that.


Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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