We are not only sheltering in place but aging in place.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has exhausted us. Time feels heavy and draining. Tuesday was a week. April seemed an eternity. Grief, anxiety, tedium, loss of control, restriction of movement, none of them rejuvenating, are part of our regimen.
Quotidian life has become smaller, quieter, routinized yet wearying. Our footprint has shrunk to blocks. New places, new people, fresh experiences — the things that invigorate us and enrich our lives — are unavailable.
Most people are lucky to have the comforts of home, particularly when others must report to work as usual, putting themselves at risk. The elderly are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from the virus. Merely feeling as if you’re aging is a privilege. Consider the alternative. But many of us are receiving a sudden education in what aging will bring us, and not always its best aspects.
There’s a physical toll from coping with constant stress and anxiety. “I have hurt my back from the weight of all of this,” says Jenny Abeling, 37, executive director of Laurelhurst House, an assisted-living facility in Portland, Ore.
She took early, aggressive measures when the outbreak began, and no resident or staff member has gotten covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. But Abeling is working 75 hours a week while she and her husband care for an exuberant 5-year-old daughter at home.
“I feel so much older,” she says. “I could be 60. I feel like my body has aged so much overnight.”
We feel fragile doing the things we long took for granted. We feel anxious going to the grocery store. A therapeutic walk can be an obstacle course in avoiding risk. Confinement limits our experiences, which massive amounts of Zoom and Netflix cannot mitigate.
“I miss the world. I miss feeling the humanity all around me,” says Jocelyn McCormick, 76, a retired publishing executive in Los Angeles. “I am sick and tired of Zoom exercise classes and Zoom cocktail parties.”
Self-quarantine can feel like punishment, sapping vitality. An excess of Zoom “feels like we’re all watching people in prison,” says Jonathon Aubry, 44, who runs a Los Angeles marketing and branding company while caring for 8-year-old twins with his husband. “Being so sedentary feels like it’s winding us down.”
Another casualty is “we’ve lost a kind of innocence. Our children have lost a kind of innocence,” says psychiatrist Michael Baime, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
“It is exhausting, coping with uncertainty, unfamiliar circumstances, anything that is a deprivation for your regular social context,” says Baime, 64, who is counseling hospital workers via Zoom, a video-call service. “Your vital energy is diminished. You’re more likely to be depressed.”
When your daily life shrinks, small things can matter more. Like the weather, the pabulum of conversational palate cleansers. Dinner has achieved outsize importance. It’s the day’s chief variable. We discuss dinner at breakfast. Mid-dinner, we discuss the next dinner.
We’ve rekindled our love affair with carbs. How great are carbs! Keto and paleo seem so January. But seductive carbs have a sneaky way of making us feel bloated, logy and even older.
Humans are designed to move and progress, all challenges when we’re governed by limitations. “I feel like I’m frozen or stuck. I’m not growing or changing or learning the same way I was. Every day is like the day before,” says Blake Jackson, 35, of Los Angeles, who is not working as a sports television editor because there are no sports right now.
His wife, Lia, 33, employed in television production accounting, says, “it feels like the outside world doesn’t exist,” particularly with the lack of seasons in Los Angeles. “Time feels like one big blob.”
Jackson spends his days caring for 1-year-old Beckett, and he finds it far more taxing than his former 12-hour office days: “I’m sore all the time.”
The work-from-home office chair is an ergonomic horror, a con swaddled in throw pillows. It will never be confused for the highfalutin work model that we long took for granted but no longer. Our backs ache. Our necks ache. We sit entirely too much, gazing at too many screens.
Our hair is a foreign country. Self-care has been reduced to soap. Eyebrows have staged a mass rebellion. The rapid proliferation of gray tresses has eliminated any need to present ID for senior grocery hours. (Carding seniors is not normal.) On social media, people share how April aged them into Ted Kaczynski or late-stage Howard Hughes.
We’re not shopping our closets. We’re shopping yesterday’s tossed pile of clothes. Different day, same sweats. Makeup, collared shirts and nonelastic waistbands are distant memories. Every generation, from toddler to the elderly, dresses more or less alike.
“I don’t wear a bra when I hang out at home. I’m not worried about how I’m looking,” says singer Kora Feder, 25, of Philadelphia. She wrote “In a Young Person’s Body,” featured on NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” about how self-quarantine has aged her: “I look in the mirror and all I can see is a worried old woman in a young person’s body.”
Matthew Moskovitz, 17, Natasha’s brother, says, “I feel a lot more lethargic. There’s no motivation to exercise.” It’s a bore not having to be at a specific place at a given time. “It’s sort of an existentialist question: What’s the point of having a set structure?” He misses structure.
Therapist Tamar Chansky, an expert on anxiety, maintains a full schedule seeing adults and children, including former patients who have returned for guidance during the pandemic.
“We’re not suited to incredible overnight changes to our world,” says Philadelphia-based Chansky, 57. “We don’t have novelty right now. That feeds us. Novelty is a sign of growth and a sign of life. We certainly weren’t built to sit still in a crisis, when we’re under threat. We weren’t built to sit in front of a screen to get our emotional needs.”
We may also be aging in reverse, reverting to youthful behavior. Like occasional tantrums. Or, at every possible meal, desiring ice cream, noodles, sugary cereal and massive quantities of peanut butter straight from the jar.
“It feels like we’re permanently grounded. Like all our your freedoms have been taken away,” Aubry says.
Baime, the psychiatrist, admits, “I am regressed. I can get kind of cranky about the whole thing.” And he’s a meditation and mindfulness guy.
We’ve acquired wisdom, another benefit of aging. We’ve obtained coping skills in the worst possible circumstances. We’ve adapted quickly. Many people have grown kinder, more appreciative of small things. We’ve taken more notice of spring. Old friends have reached out to rekindle relationships and forgive past transgressions.
“Eventually, we will be able to see this as a period of growth, that we’ve grown, and that’s desirable,” Chansky says.
Susan LaDuca, 78, a retired therapist in Boca Raton, Fla., leads a workshop for seniors, now through Zoom, with members ages 68 to 90.
“We’re all doing okay, because we’re staying connected. But that lack of touching for so many people is so hard,” she says. Everyone is having trouble sleeping.
She and her husband, Tony, 79, a retired health educator, have few complaints, especially as covid-19 has ravaged many members of their generation. The LaDucas realize they’re fortunate.
“We know seniors are more vulnerable, but I just don’t feel it,” she says. They’re teaching classes, helping at a local food bank, staying active and involved. “We don’t have anything to complain about. We just feel old.”