As shelter at home regulations came into force in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, political leaders from New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo to California’s Gavin Newsom underlined the importance of keeping tabs on seniors. More than once, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, exhorted young people to call their grandparents and asked post-secondary students to shop for and help their senior-citizen neighbors.
But, once governors allowed the re-opening of stores, bars, nail salons and tattoo parlors (these last three being adjudged even more necessary than most doctor’s offices), the effects of the pandemic on the lives of seniors has all but dropped out of the news.
The few references I’ve seen recently to seniors differ markedly from the fiery debate about sending children back to school. Let us set aside those, like President Trump, who focus on the hitherto un-discussed purpose of schools: day care centers for working parents. However much they disagree, the educators and psychologists who emphasize the deleterious effect of keeping the schools closed on young people’s mental health and learning, and those who fear COVID spikes and the statistical certainty of dead children, have their eyes firmly fixed on the effects of the crisis on young people’s future. Seniors, not so much; it’s almost as if now that the stereotypical “ladies who lunch” can now meet on new restaurant patios, all is well.
But all is not well. Religious thinkers and others have long decried post-war North Americans for our unwillingness to face the inevitability of aging and death. In 1967, as the Beatles sang When I’m Sixty-Four, that age (which I will be in less than three years) seemed impossibly far away.
One way of illustrating the effect of the COVID crisis on those who are nearing or have passed the Biblical allotment of “three score and ten” is by way of the 17th Century poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” Back in English 101, we thrilled to Andrew Marvell’s vision of a lover spending “Two hundred [years] to adore each breast” and turning ourselves into “amorous birds of prey.” Today, as millions have been sickened across North America and the number of dead marches toward 200,000, including tens of thousands of seniors who died in understaffed and under-supplied nursing homes, different words jump from the page: “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”
In the space of a few weeks, beginning in mid-March, seniors, who took joy from family gatherings, taking part in activities organized by seniors’ groups, sharing time with friends and, if they were lucky enough to have the means to, travel, suddenly found themselves, as the poet wrote at the end of the poem, standing essentially alone looking out: “And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity.”
This was driven home to me last week when my wife and I discussed my daughter’s recent visit to Ottawa from Montreal with my almost one-year-old grandson. It was, of course, wonderful to see them, take walks and visit the local splash pool. For an ethnic like me, however, the social distancing requirements made it extraordinarily painful not to hug my daughter or hold him: a few weeks earlier, it had been unnatural not to embrace my son and his partner when they visited.
Touch, with what the author of Genesis called “flesh of my flesh,” is more than simply a mark of closeness, though it assuredly is that. It is a link, an extension of one’s self, into the future the world yet to come that these younger generations will experience beyond you.
While not all seniors are members of organizations that mount events and organize outings or are able to volunteer as I do at a museum, the millions who do suddenly found themselves adrift as we silently passed from BC to AC (Before COVID/Anno COVID). Far from being the endless Sunday that we dreamt of while working, life has been turned into a script that could have come from the pen of the Jean Paul Sartre, author of the Existentialist play, No Exit.
On-line lectures and tours can fill time, though these underscored words indicate the problem. No one ever speaks about “filling time” the way one does of filling a hole with concrete and erecting a fence post. This is because “filling time” is only a more erudite way of saying “wasting time.” One doesn’t have to subscribe to John Calvin’s fundamentalist belief that time not spent working must be devoted to prayer or Benjamin Franklin’s doctrine that “lost time is never found again” to feel that “filled time” has the nutritional value of puffed cereal.
At root, the difference between “filling time” with on-line activities, including a virtual tour of, for example, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and being there is that being in situ with both other people and the works of art matters. Being in the presence of an art that speaks to us is uplifting in a way that viewing it on screen or in a book cannot be.
Experiencing this, dare I call it transcendence, with others is like being part of a choir. The experience fairly transcends time. Or, more properly, it places you in a continuum that includes the uncounted millions of others who have experienced what can be called the work’s “aura” — and the implicit pledge made by the museum or gallery that the work will be preserved so that uncounted millions who in the future will stand where you stand, see what you see. Put another way, standing before an art work is in a small way seeing not just into but in the future.
Poor seniors are liable to be even more cut off than middle-class and well-to-do seniors. Many may not be able to afford computers and the Internet, and, thus, are denied the pablum of Facetime sessions with family and friends. The poor are less likely to have back yards where family and friends can safely visit, and to live in smaller apartments or houses where social distancing is difficult or impossible. COVID sickens and kills more poor people than it does among the wealthy and middle class.
This means that proportionately speaking, millions more North American poor seniors — and proportionally more of these are Blacks and Hispanics — have lost friends and family; almost all have been unable to gather to grieve. Accordingly, relative to their population, more Blacks and Hispanics have grandparents who have lost children and grandchildren. Statistics tell the stark story in numbers that omit the emotions shared by all grieving grandparents: they now stand cut off from the future, from the all-too-human belief that something of their being will, as Shakespeare put it, be there to hear “the last syllable of recorded time.”
A few days ago, I spoke to one of my friends who is in her early 80s. A year ago, she and her husband were busy planning another cruise. She counts herself lucky that in their now drastically reduced world, she can find happiness reading among the flowers in their garden. But that is not the whole story. The weekend before we spoke, for the first time in months, two of her children and their families visited, sitting safely apart in the garden. One of her sons, however, could not join them because his family had recently spent time with some of his wife’s relatives from Toronto. This decision was completely in line with public-health guidelines, which did nothing to lessen the pain in her voice. Sunday and holiday dinners with her children and grandchildren are one of her and her husband’s great joys.
Later that day, when I told my wife that I was concerned about the tenor of conversation, she said, “What’s left for them and even us? What’s Christmas going to be like? Another What’s App meal? At least our neighbors (who have young kids and are working from home) have something to do each day. All we can do is wait.” Her emotion-filled voice reminded me the hopelessness in one of the Doors’ songs: “This is the end/Beautiful friend/This is the end/My only friend, the end.”
Only much later that night, did the words come to me that might have helped. I didn’t get out of bed to check the title of the song, but, lying next to the woman I love and with whom I’ve joked that there is no one else I would want to go through a pandemic with, I thought of one of the songs on Leonard Cohen’s 2009 album, “Live in London.” There, in the dark, I recited them, hoping that the tens of millions of other seniors and others looking into a dark and seemingly empty future could share something of what he and Sharon Robinson wrote: “Nothing left to do/When you’ve got to go on waiting/Waiting for the miracle to come.”
Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.