A matter of time

Older Americans reflect on what the pandemic has taken from them

(Jorge González/Illustration for The Washington Post)

Every generation struggled in its own way during the pandemic. Children missed classrooms and birthday parties, college students lost out on campus life, young families labored without child care. But older Americans endured the pandemic with a keen awareness that they were losing more than their retirement plans: They were losing time.

Retirees and the elderly might be feeling as if “I know I don’t have that many years left,” said Jerrold Lee Shapiro, a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University who has researched retirement. “The hourglass has been turned over. I know more years have passed than I will have in the future. I’m in my 60s or my 70s or whatever, and covid is taking those years away. I’m not going to use them.”

Experts say older people often fared better than their younger counterparts, displaying resilience born out of decades of life experience and wisdom. Many people pivoted, finding joy and meaning in simple activities: creating art, planting thousands of flowers or reading to a grandchild over Zoom. But a feeling still persists: the lingering sense that things weren’t supposed to be this way. As the world enters a third year of life with the coronavirus, we asked these people to reflect on what they’ve lost and gained in the past two years.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Whitney, 70, Tallahassee. Michael, an accountant, and his wife of 45 years, Ann, who worked in education, retired on Dec. 31, 2019. Ann died of cancer on Oct. 31, 2021, about two months after being diagnosed.

Ann and I planned our retirement carefully and well in advance. We worked very hard our whole lives, and retirement was going to be our time to finally do some of the things we never got a chance to do. We said that this was going to be our time.

We spent a couple of months planning an extensive trip around the country. We had a giant map of the United States glued to a board and stuck pins in all the places we were going to go. We probably had at least 30 or 40 pins. That trip was supposed to start in May 2020 and go for three months, and later in the year, we were going to go to Scotland. But then the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down.

We were perfectly willing to make some adjustments and stay home and be very cautious. But we thought: “Well, how long can this go on for? A couple of months, maybe even into the summer. But certainly by the summer, this will be over, and we’ll be able to make up for lost time.” And that was something Ann said all the time: “We’re going to make up for lost time.”

As soon as vaccines were available, we got vaccinated. We thought we were back on track. We replanned our cross-country trip and booked a new trip to Scotland. We thought we were going to be able to do that, but then two things happened: The delta variant came along, and Ann started getting sick.

It was early May 2021, and we were setting out on our road trip across the country. Ann was not feeling well. She saw her doctor before we left, got checked out and had bloodwork done, and the doctor didn’t see anything. So she thought: “Maybe I’ve just got a bug or something and we’ll just start and hopefully I’ll get better as we go.”

We got as far as New York, where we visited family, then she got sicker and sicker, developing a cough and hip pain. By August, we were back in Tallahassee. Ann fractured her hip during the return trip and was recovering from surgery when she got the call: She had undetected lung cancer, even though she never smoked in her entire life. When she told me, we both cried — for a while.

She’d had it long enough that it spread to other places. By the time they diagnosed it, she already had cancer in her bones and her lymph nodes. What really did her in was it had spread to her brain. That’s what caused her rapid deterioration, and it’s why I lost her. We got the diagnosis at the beginning of September. Ann died Oct. 31.

One of the last things Ann said to me when she could still talk was, “When we get through this, we’re going to make up for lost time.” Well, we didn’t. That time was lost forever.

(Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

I just turned 70 in October, and up until the past two years, I always felt about 10 years younger than I was. The past two years, and the past six months especially, have wiped all that out. It’s a struggle to hold on to hope.

Ahead of our retirement, we replaced our dining room table and chairs with a much bigger set and looked forward to entertaining friends and hosting dinner parties. We hosted one Thanksgiving in 2019, and since that day, no one has sat at that table except me and Ann because of the pandemic. Now, only I sit there.

I got rid of our road trip map. I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore, so I had to take it apart. I’m not sure whether I’ll go to Scotland. There’s a lot of sadness attached to it. It would be really hard for me to go by myself, because she wanted to go there very badly.

Ann wanted me to find a way to be happy and to carry on, and I’m working on that. I still want to meet my new grandson. He was born Aug. 1. Ann never got to meet him. That really tore her up. She sat on the couch and cried bitterly and said, “I’ll never get to hold my grandson.” I see his picture all the time, but I’d like to pick him up. I’m hoping very much that I’ll be able to do that soon. I’m going to do my best to make sure he knows Ann.

Oveta Willie-Jenkins, 69, North Chesterfield, Va. Oveta, who primarily taught middle school English, retired in the summer of 2020.

I knew 2020 was going to be the year. After 45 years of teaching, I needed to move on and start the next chapter in my life.

The pandemic robbed me of the joy of retiring. I was looking forward to seeing what a celebratory retirement would be like, and that didn’t happen. In fact, I had to learn to teach all over again. I traded my chalkboard for Zoom and tried to help my students navigate our new virtual reality.

On my last day, there was a Zoom celebration. It was great to see my friends and family on that call, but it wasn’t the send-off I had envisioned. I don’t know why this stuck with me, but in the past, when people I knew retired, they would get retirement cards, and I envied them. I don’t know why getting retirement cards was such an important aspect of ending your career. Well, I only got one, and that was because of the circumstances around the pandemic. People weren’t going out. I got wishes electronically, but the physical cards in the mail, they weren’t there.

It’s been surreal. I had to deviate from what my husband and I had already planned. I’m a planner, and we had schedules, and we knew what we were going to do. Then, all of a sudden, it was, “Okay, that’s not going to work anymore.”

I was concerned that the pandemic would cause a shift in my life to the point that it would be so different that I would not be able to adjust. But I’ve realized that I’m mentally flexible and adaptable enough to say, “Okay, life as you knew it is not coming back for now, so what are you going to have to do?” I didn’t panic. I didn’t get depressed. There was a touch of anxiety, but I had to pull myself out of it, because that’s not going to be productive if this is life moving forward.

(Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

I’ve found simple things to do that bring me pleasure. When I go on walks, I take pictures of sunrises and sunsets, and I’ve turned my photographs into custom cards that I send out. I sketch now: my plants, the flowers on the patio, a still life of radishes. I’m honing my baking skills and experimenting with vegan recipes. I’ve always loved to cook. It brings me peace and joy, and I like to see others enjoy my cooking, but I didn’t bake, because I didn’t have time.

My husband and I have also connected. We delight in helping each other cook and in sharing recipes. We didn’t do that before. Again, we didn’t have the time. I get so excited when he asks me what spice to use in a dish. On our walks, I listen to him talk about history. It’s been most fulfilling, because there have been sides of each other that we hadn’t had time to appreciate, because we were so busy. “Busy with life” is what my husband likes to say.

This pandemic, however, has made me more cautious and careful, and that’s hard for someone who has been carefree and spontaneous. I can’t see myself reverting back to being that carefree and going wherever I want to go. Now, how is that going to affect who I am? I can’t let this overwhelm me to the point that I lose sight of who I am. I have to still find ways to be Oveta.

G. Wilson Gunn Jr., 69, Durham, N.C. Wilson, a presbytery executive who worked with congregations and pastors in the D.C. area, retired in 2018 and planned to spend more time with his family, particularly his aging father.

I moved to North Carolina in part to be closer to my father, who was in his 90s. I hoped to have regular time, monthly weekend or three-day visits, with my father in his final years, and that just didn’t happen.

The senior living home he was in did a really good job of containing the coronavirus, and he never got it. But the place was locked down. You could only visit through the window or on a Zoom call, so we did. You just pivot for this sort of thing. It’s life.

I would show him photographs, most of which he had taken, on Zoom and get him to talk about them, which was a good exercise for someone with dementia. It just was a challenge to keep the headphones on him. For Father’s Day, my sister and brothers, who live in the Asheville area, dressed the car up like a homecoming float and drove by while he sat in a chair with a funny hat on. Who knows if he could keep them in focus or not, but he looked happy.

Still, he was remarkably socially isolated. The staff members really worked at it, but it was a hard time for them to do so. I think his social isolation over that year led to a faster demise than he would have otherwise experienced.

In early August 2020, his kidneys were failing, and they said he was close to death. There is a rule that if someone is close to death, you’ve got to let family in. So my siblings and I went. We were all there. That was precious. Of course, even then it was one at a time, a hazmat suit and the works, which again, they had to do. If they were going to keep the residents safe, that’s the only way they could do it.

I spent about a half-hour with him, and that was enough. He was wearing out fast, too. I had time that I could sing all the hymns we were going to sing at his funeral, and he was right there with me singing every verse, even the ones I was crying for, because he knew this was the last thing. So we said our goodbyes.

My father died Oct. 5, 2020, a month after my son’s wedding, which, of course, he couldn’t attend.

This has been a whole period of grief over what the loss was, but also a period of gratitude. I’ve got remarkable grief, but real gratitude.

We still want to take my father’s ashes to his final resting place. We’ve scattered some at the church he served for 18 years up in the mountains in North Carolina. He wanted my mother’s and his ashes to be interred at the seminary he attended in Louisville, so we’ll make that trip. I just don’t know how and when, but until then, we’ll wait until the time is right.

Carol Bruen, 76, Walnut Creek, Calif. Carol and her husband stay connected to their grandchildren through video calls, and they regularly read books over Zoom to one of their younger granddaughters, who lives in Savannah, Ga.

I don’t remember who started it, if we said, “Do you want us to read to Lou today?” or if her mother said, “Maybe Zoom and talk to her.” We just started reading books.

My husband and I would alternate every other day reading. I would read the princess books and the Magic Tree House books and the books about the fairies, and he would concentrate on dragons and mysteries. She and her grandfather have a whole thing going. He’s taught her codes: Morse code, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dancing Men code, the Knights Templar cipher and polyalphabetic substitution ciphers. They frequently send each other messages all in code.

We developed this wonderful close connection, which probably kept us closer to our granddaughter. Especially after she moved to Savannah, we would never have had those times.

Now that she’s back in school, it hasn’t happened as often. We do it on weekends. She was home sick recently, and we read to her every day. We have read probably 60 books to her. She draws when we’re reading to her. She’ll illustrate the stories. She makes little notebooks with all kinds of dragons in them and names them. Our daughter-in-law saved those.

The memories we carry of our grandparents, we want our grandchildren to carry of us, and we think all of these things will build into that, so they will remember these times they’ve spent with us.

Ann Clark, 64, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Ann and her husband, Jim, have been married for 38 years, and she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in July.

I feel the clock ticking. I feel as if every day this goes on is another day lost to an unknown life span. The thing about Parkinson’s is it’s so uncertain. You could call me a year from now, and I could look just as I do now, or I could be a mess. You don’t know, so you have to act while you can. It definitely multiplied and compounded my sense of urgency about doing the things that are really important to me.

I would probably be a lot less risk-averse if I didn’t have Parkinson’s, but maybe not. Our world has gotten very small. But my husband and I are incredibly fortunate. We have a nice house to bunker down in. We’re in a beautiful part of the country. We’re not worried about food insecurity. We haven’t lost anybody very close to us to covid. Having said that, this is not how we thought it was going to be.

What really bothers me is I don’t know how many years my husband and I have left together. That’s the natural evolution of a marriage. Somebody usually dies first. How crappy is it that we’ve had this great marriage and we really want to go and enjoy things together, but we may not get to do that to the degree we really want to?

We’re very happy together, and I want to be doing things with him and going out to lunch with him and being spontaneous, because, at some point, there is just going to be one of us. That is going to happen, and I’m so sad that we can’t do that.

None of us are going to live forever, and every day is a lost day.

Stanley K. Williams, 74, Washington, D.C. Stanley, a Vietnam War-era veteran who served in Nuremberg, Germany, worked for the federal government before retiring in 2014. He is the president of the Washington DC Hall of Fame Society and recently became D.C. chair of the Defense Department’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.

When this began, I experienced some depression. I’m a very social person. I’m out talking to people, joining various causes. I like to shake hands and hug, and I haven’t been able to do that. But seeing how the coronavirus was devastating our community, I began to accept our situation and started to be thankful.

I’ve fared fairly well. My children still live in the neighborhood. My wife has a large family here. Everybody’s been vaccinated. We have a 7-month-old grandson, the first grandchild in the family. Babysitting has really been a source of joy and excitement. I’m up in age. I want to spend as much time with and have as much influence on him as I can. We’ve had it better than a lot of people because of our proximity to our family and our ability to communicate and see each other.

You have to sit down and say, “What do I have?” Look at what’s happened, what your situation is. You adopt a mind-set of what you’re thankful for rather than what you’ve lost. When you turn away from how bad things are for you, you’re thankful for what you have, and you see who else you can help, which I think has helped me a lot. My wife and I try to keep in touch with people who are living alone, because we know they’re having a tough time. We donate a lot. If someone doesn’t have what they need — coronavirus tests, masks, medications — I try to get it to them.

African Americans have always known that, whenever something happens, we might get the short end of it, so we have to be prepared to help each other. That’s where my mind-set comes from. We always have to be prepared to help each other, because we might be the last to get the resources we need to fight or to overcome whatever situation we’re in.

I don’t miss as much as I thought I would, the other things that I thought I would be able to do, because I’m busy. Volunteering and helping others gives me a sense of satisfaction and purpose. It gives me a joy of fulfillment that very few other things give me.

Mary Terselic, 71, Racine, Wis. Mary retired in 2013 and soon after started caring for her mother, who died shortly before the pandemic began.

I was finally able to travel and do things that didn’t require having to be available to assist my mother, so I was just getting my feet wet again when everything came to a grinding halt.

This is sort of not fair. I’ve worked all these years. I did what I was supposed to do. I saved and I saved and I saved and I saved. And now, I have my retirement savings, and I feel as if it’s just sitting there, waiting for me to spend it. Because of this pandemic, which nobody could control, nobody could foresee, my life’s been turned on its ear.

I feel particularly vulnerable, not because I have preexisting comorbidities, but because the medical community considers me to be elderly, and elderly people are far more susceptible to covid. But I’m working part time at an automotive repair shop with four other employees, and not one of them is vaccinated, and they’re not sick. Even the guy who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day hasn’t gotten sick. What the heck? So I think to myself: “Well, maybe am I being foolish by being so protective of myself? Or are they just really lucky?” On the other hand, I don’t want to find out. I have a friend who has long covid. It’s now been several months, and she’s still on oxygen, still getting physical therapy. There’s a nurse still coming to see her once a week at home. That’s scary.

I read an article discussing a term to describe the state we’re in: languishing. That’s just a perfect word. It’s this perpetual state of blahness. It’s like a zero. It’s not bad, it’s not good. I don’t feel as if I’m depressed, but I also don’t have much energy. My friends and I exchange emails, so we’re not completely out of touch, but it’s still isolating. I can’t really describe it. I’m not depressed, but I’m not happy, either. I just am.

There’s a definite lethargy in my life, that’s for sure. Laundry? Do it today, do it tomorrow, do it next week, who cares? It’s kind of like that for everything.

Lynn Sebrell, 67, Durham, N.C. Lynn retired after 39 years of teaching in 2015 and was diagnosed with cancer that same year. She received a second cancer diagnosis in January.

When I retired, my principal asked me, “What are you going to do for you?” I wanted to travel. I made it to New England that fall to see the leaves and went up to Canada. But in late 2015, I got my first cancer diagnosis.

I had surgery in early 2016, which took care of pretty much everything, and I recovered quickly. Of course, it’s a wake-up call, and it feels as if you need to live your life, you need to follow your dreams. I rediscovered my passion for theater and started going to shows. I took some of my insurance payout from my surgery and bought a “Hamilton” ticket back when they were not affordable. I moved to Durham, N.C., and by 2018, I was finally where I wanted to be and was able to do the things I wanted to do. I traveled to Amsterdam and Paris. In 2019, I saw 65 shows. At this point, I’m theater-obsessed.

When the pandemic hit, I had only been here a couple of years. By that summer, it looked as if theater was not coming back at all that year, and I started to get really lonely. I went a year without physical contact with another human being — without a hug or a handshake or any of that.

(Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

My first hug was from my neighbor. She’s a good hugger. I kind of melted a little bit. It was a huge stress reliever, a huge release. I’m not even sure I knew how important it was until then, because I’m an introvert, and I’ve never been a big hugger. I hadn’t noticed physical contact before. I’d taken it for granted, and now I don’t.

In the early days of the pandemic, I was bitter. It’s like: Here I am, I’m retired. I’m supposed to have time to selfishly do a few things. But I have found ways to reclaim my time. I wrote more than 1,300 letters and post cards to encourage voting. My neighbor and I built raised garden beds, and I worked on beautifying the yard of our duplex. I learned to grow vegetables. In fall 2020, I planted 3,600 spring bulbs. (Tulips are my favorite.) If I couldn’t go to the gardens at Duke University, I was going to put those gardens in my neighborhood.

I went overboard the first year, and I definitely went overboard in 2021, with close to 6,000 bulbs, which I planted myself. I planted every day for 30 days.

The garden has been a total joy. I’m thinking that, if I have to go to chemo and I can’t go anywhere, March and April are the months for it to happen, because I can sit in my garden with those flowers and the birds and the sounds of my little neighborhood.

My second cancer diagnosis — breast cancer, this time — was a blow. One of the doctors said it was very early stages, so you hang on to that. But for a few days, I felt as if cancer was going to bookend my retirement years, encasing a couple of years of theatergoing and a couple of years of pandemic isolation. I didn’t stay in that head space for long, but for the first time in several years, I have put a hold on making future theater plans.

Thérèse Arcole, 93, Washington, D.C. Thérèse’s childhood was defined by World War II — fleeing her hometown in France at 10 years old with her family — and now she’s living through the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, I was talking about being ready to die. You see, the French people have a sense of reality that the Americans don’t. Americans want to live forever. No, I don’t want to live forever. I’ve done my time.

I might have been able to stretch wanting to live a few more years if I had not suddenly been stuck at home. I didn’t want to be stuck at home, but we have been made to stay at home, and that accelerated it. I definitely know the pandemic had an influence.

Two years ago, I was all over the place still with my mask. Now I can’t anymore. I have to use a cane to go outside. I cannot do my walk outside, because I might fall, so I walk all the levels of my building every day. I listen to lectures in French on YouTube. Send emails. That’s how I pass my time. I have lost friends, because nobody came to see me anymore. They were afraid to go out and catch the coronavirus, so I have a lot of friends I don’t see.

I’ve enjoyed every minute of my life. Now I’m waiting to die. People are telling me: “Don’t think like that.” I say: “I have enjoyed every minute of it. I’m ready to go.”

Liz Paredes, 67, Secaucus, N.J. Liz, who is immunocompromised, had to take an unpaid leave of absence from teaching in March 2021 after in-person classes resumed. She officially retired that summer.

I never really imagined not working. I expected at least four more years, if not more, for pensions, so I would be able to live more comfortably. But in March 2021, we were told our options were either return to teaching in person or take an unpaid leave of absence.

I had taught elementary Spanish at two schools, so I used to see more than 700 students per week. Going back to in-person classes was just like danger, danger. I’m immunocompromised, and, following advice from my doctor, I can’t be vaccinated. I’ve had really adverse reactions to vaccines before. It’s trouble breathing — not good. I would fight to be the first in line to get a coronavirus vaccine if I could, but I can’t.

Sometimes, I’m still in shock. I can’t believe this happened to me. It’s hard to be forced to do something. It would be different if I had chosen this. It bothers me, because I still feel as if I can contribute. Stopping abruptly, and not by choice, was mentally devastating. I felt humiliated.

In the beginning, to survive, it was like, “This is what it is.” And it almost started to look like, “Hey, this isn’t a bad idea.” My daughter and her family were living with me. I could spend time with my granddaughter. But then they moved out.

I come home to an empty house, and I miss the laughter, the camaraderie, the hugs. Now, I’m sort of sequestered here by myself. I’m like a castaway on an island, and the island is my apartment. It’s like a safe base. I have a cat, Mr. Pugsley, and he’s been life-affirming. I’m reluctant to visit friends or go to senior centers. I just feel — and my doctor agreed — that it’s too dangerous for me to do that now. I still see my granddaughter about once or twice a week. They quarantine first, and everybody’s safe. But it’s not as frequent as it should be.

There are some days when it gets to me, especially on gloomy, rainy days, when I feel as if I have no energy to get up and go. But I force myself out, and I say: “Okay, you’re going to go out, you’re going to draw, you’re going to play music, something that will uplift you.”

The first thing I would like to do when I feel it’s safer is go to the grocery store and pick my own produce. Smell it. Feel it to see whether it’s fresh. See the colors: the oranges, the yellows, the greens. Something as simple as that. It reminds me of my childhood and going to the market with my mother. I miss that. I would love to do that and not fear for my life.

I’m fearful of the future. What does it mean for me or people like me? We’re not enjoying this freedom. I don’t mind wearing a mask if I need to continue to do so, but my world cannot open up as everyone else’s world is, and that’s a sad reality.

Editing by Jenny Rogers. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Videos by Allie Caren. Design by Victoria Fogg. Copy editing by Rachael Bolek.