For the elderly, the pandemic is about loss

In response to the pandemic, TV psychologists and my younger friends and colleagues are preoccupied with fear. There are obviously good reasons. But for many of us elderly, the current disaster has more to do with loss.

The activities we pursue—above all, those we pursue with others—are chosen with the awareness that we are, indeed, choosing.  There will not be time to do everything we might wish, or once imagined, when time seemed forever. Our calendars include milestone events—a fiftieth college reunion, grandchildren’s weddings or graduations, special anniversary trips for which we have saved, and planned, for many years.  Yes, we hope that some of this can be rescheduled. But a lot will never come again, and they cannot be experienced “online.” They are simply gone.

Beyond specific occasions, there is the more general constriction. Aging already limits many of us. We don’t travel as often or as far or at all. With whatever degree of struggle, we have grown accustomed to our limitations, to letting go, to losing swathes of what we once did easily and took for granted. Abruptly, we have lost more. That hits us, literally, where we live. The good news is that we are used to sucking it up and letting things go. The bad news is that it can be profoundly sad.  Time is short. The odds of regaining ground—like the odds of regaining retirement savings—have diminished.

And yes, of course, we think about the probable rationing of medical care. We are reminded every day that age will matter, as it should. General health will matter, as it should. Some of us will struggle against this. Many will accept it. But even if we do accept it, succumbing to an algorithm is not the way we imagined going out.  Agonized as it can be, dying of heart disease or cancer or neurological illness retains at least a degree of normality. For that reason, it retains a degree of dignity. Dying as the result of utilitarian calculus is something else—not because it is wrong, but because it is arithmetic.

Meanwhile, we are aware that the majority of people in the world, and many in the United States, could not afford—indeed, could not imagine—a fiftieth college reunion or a special anniversary trip. Untreated or untreatable infectious disease is part of why. The leading causes of death in Africa in 2016—60 percent—were viral and bacterial pneumonia, HIV Aids, diarrheal diseases, malaria, and tuberculosis.  Death in Africa is different from death in Venice, although less different today than only a month ago. In Africa and elsewhere around the globe, many are spared loss because, with respect to longevity, they are denied gain.

Knowing this could yield another kind of loss—of whatever innocence, or ignorance, we have been able to sustain.  That is not a cause for guilt (which serves no one), but it might stir a different kind of compassion.  For some, it might even serve our becoming more like the elders that we have aspired to be.

About the Author
Henry (Hank) Greenspan is a psychologist and playwright at the University of Michigan who has been interviewing, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust and its survivors since the 1970s.
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