The Upside of Being Old During a Pandemic

My pandemic diaries, starting with gratitude for all that I have not missed out on

For some old people, life during the pandemic is so unbearable, they are giving up. Being cut off from visits, socializing, and other activities that brought them joy may have been tolerable for a while, but now, it is starting to seem like there is no end in sight. No longer able to have a cherished nephew or devoted aide with them during life-saving treatments, some just stop the treatments. The New York Times reports that older people are attempting suicide at higher rates — not just cries for help, but genuine efforts.

It is especially difficult for older people who are in nursing homes and other institutions, where the level of care may have slipped, and rates of COVID-19 infections are frighteningly high. Even those who are living in places of their own are disproportionately in very small or dreary places, because older people are particularly likely to be struggling financially.

I’m 67. I don’t really think of myself as old, but I know that technically, I qualify. I also know that my age puts me at risk for getting infected, so I have been extraordinarily careful. I am bound and determined not to let COVID catch me. I haven’t stepped foot in a supermarket since March; I pay someone to do my grocery shopping for me. And as much as I would love to see my friends in person, it took until this month, October 2020, before I had my first socially-distanced, masked get-togethers with friends.

But I’m not complaining. I’m on the privileged end of the scale. I have a place of my own that I love, in a beautiful, sunny town. I have arthritis but I still manage to go for a walk nearly every day on some deserted trail. I have work that is beyond meaningful — I’m passionate about the research and writing I do about people who are single. And I can do it from home.

I missed out on a conference on relationships that was supposed to take place in London in July, where I was going to talk about what social scientists too often get wrong about single people, and the affirming, empirically-grounded narratives they are missing. But I got to do something even more exciting — give the keynote address and then listen to other great talks in an international and interdisciplinary Zoom conference, “Singles Studies: Global Perspectives.”

Instead of going out and about, I’m home alone. I’ve always savored my alone time. I worried at first that I would get worn down by week after week, month after month, of spending more time alone than ever before. Mostly, I still haven’t, though I do miss my friends, and I miss just being among other people in stores, restaurants, farmers markets, and the sidewalks downtown. (Below, I’ve posted my short essays on my experiences of being single during the pandemic, starting with the first week when some thought it was possible that we would go back to our usual routines in a matter of weeks.)

I started writing this to tell you why I think there are distinct advantages of being old during a pandemic. First, I did some research to see if other people have been discussing this, and instead found a slew of dismal reports. They reminded me of how bad it can be, and so I opened this post with an acknowledgment of that.

In the emails I have been exchanging with some of my friends, though, particularly the friends who are about the same age as me, it is the theme of gratitude that we keep coming back to. For me, that gratitude is age inflected. I think I would be crestfallen if I were at an earlier stage of my career, and suddenly I could no longer see my colleagues or my students in person, or conduct my studies, or meet fellow academics at far-flung conferences. I think I would be devastated if I were in college or high school and could not have the total experience that only the pre-pandemic days offered. And if I were even younger than that, I suspect I would be not just distressed and disappointed but confused.

What makes me sad these days is not much of anything about my own life, but what I see so many younger people missing out on. (And that’s even without adding in the other staggering troubles others are facing, such as hunger, poverty, and the loss of jobs, homes, health, and even the lives of friends and family succumbing to COVID.)

There are things I won’t be able to do because of the pandemic. Maybe I’ll never get to them. But at 67, I’ve already been able to enjoy many of the life experiences we used to take for granted. All told, I feel far more grateful than deprived.

My Pandemic Diaries

Here are some of my writings about my personal experiences during the pandemic, starting with what I wrote when California first went into lockdown. I haven’t edited these. They are exactly as I first wrote them.

I’m Mostly Fine Now, But What about 2 Weeks from Now?

Written on March 21, 2020

A few years ago, I went for weeks without any contact with other humans. It was a time when the people I see most often all just happened to be away or otherwise preoccupied for some reason. Instead of doing what might have come naturally, reaching out to the people I don’t see that often, I decided to turn the experience into an experiment.

How long would it take until my characteristic love of solitude would turn into loneliness and misery? I wrote about the experience in the Washington Post in “I’ve been single all my life. I rarely get lonely.” Here’s the briefest summary:

“The first week was pure bliss. During the second, I started to miss meaningful interactions with other people, but I was still mostly fine. But then I was done.”

That was my answer. I could last about 14 days before I started to really miss other humans.

I’m thinking about that now for the obvious reason. It is coronavirus time. I’m in California, one of the states in which everyone has been ordered to stay home. Plus, my age (66) puts me in a special risk category of people who are urged to cut back on even those excursions that are allowed, such as grocery shopping.

It has been less than a week since I canceled the last of my social engagements. Unlike my experience during my experiment a few years ago, I cannot say that this first week has been pure bliss.

In some ways, it has been fine. I find cocooning comforting and familiar. My everyday routines are about what they have always been, except that they are no longer punctuated with the occasional lunches or dinners or other get-togethers.

I also have an advantage this time, compared to last. I have plenty of contact with other people by email, social media, and an occasional phone call.

But it is different this time. I have a low-level sense of anxiety that was barely discernible on day 1 but has gotten a tad more insistent every day since. I still wouldn’t call myself anxious or fearful. Yet those daily reports of increasing numbers of COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths do grab my attention, as do the worrisome predictions and the reports of shocking shortfalls in hospital space and personnel and personal protective equipment.

Another big difference from last time is that this period of social distancing was imposed; it wasn’t my choice. Humans want control over their lives. People who are single value their freedom even more than other people do.

This feels more like the aftermath of 9/11, in the sense that I just can’t seem to look away from the news. I know it is a bad idea to get too preoccupied but I’m not just hearing the same reports over and over again. Instead, there is a sort of horror movie progression. The first coronavirus case in California was reported. Then the first case in southern California. Then the first case in the county adjacent to mine. Then a few more there. Then, finally, someone was diagnosed in my own county, and now there are more every day.

No one knows how long this will go on. That’s different from my previous experience, too. A big, unnerving difference.

One last thing is entirely different, in a way I never would have predicted. I study psychology. I wonder if we humans are going to come out of this experience changed in some fundamental way.

I’m writing a book about people who are “single at heart.” One of the chapters I have been most eager to write is the one about solitude, and how much we single-at-heart types cherish our time alone. Will we still feel that way if alone-time is imposed on us for months on end?

And what about the people who love living with other people? Who fret about the specter of loneliness when they even think about the possibility of having time to themselves? Will they feel differently, too, after being cooped up with other humans month after month?

I wonder who else is rethinking something they’ve never questioned before.

Still Home Alone, No Visitors, after 2 More Weeks Have Passed

Written on April 5, 2020

I have been home alone, pandemic style, for nearly a month now. No one has darkened my doorstep in all that time, except to drop off items such as the groceries I got delivered for the first time in my life.

My favorite in-person experiences are lunches or dinners with friends, or walks. The last time I met up with a friend was on Monday March 9. We thought it was kind of amusing to greet each other with elbow bumps instead of our usual hugs. The 6-feet-apart rule either wasn’t out there yet, or it hadn’t pierced my consciousness or hers.

I know what I’m supposed to be doing to replace my face-to-face interactions: video chats. Maybe Zoom, maybe Skype, maybe some other such thing. I’ve already read countless articles about other people doing that.

I’m not doing any of it. I never liked it before the coronavirus outbreak, and I don’t like it now. Maybe that will change as the lock-down continues for additional weeks or maybe even months. But I’d be surprised if that happens.

I don’t initiate phone calls, either. I rarely have, even before pandemic time. When reporters get in touch, I always ask whether it is possible to answer by email instead of talking on the phone, though in those instances, it is also because I like to give answers I can think through, rather than just generate on the spot.

I’ll admit, though, that when people do call me, I usually enjoy the conversations. And when I talk to reporters instead of answering by email, I often learn things from them — for example, about how other people think about single people, what kinds of assumptions they are making, and what they are wondering about. It isn’t always what I would have predicted. But even though I hang up and think — oh, what an interesting reporter, or, that was nice catching up with this friend or that relative — I still won’t initiate a call the next time.

Are you starting to think I don’t have contact with anyone? That’s exactly wrong. In fact, like many others, I am more in touch with more different people than I was before the social distancing regulations went into effect. Mostly we email or stay in touch on social media.

I love that. It is just the right thing for me, communicating online with the people I care about, even more often than before. Sometimes in more emotional depth, too. It has been a lot of fun hearing from people I haven’t heard from in ages. I’ve even initiated some of those conversations.

Two weeks ago, I wrote the blog post, “I’m mostly fine now, but what about 2 weeks from now?”. I noted that I am one of those single-at-heart types who loves being single and cherishes her time alone. I wondered whether that would last as the imposed solitude drags on. So far, it has lasted. I realize that although I miss seeing other people in person, I would not in a million years want to be living with anyone right now. No matter how long the lock-down continues, I feel quite sure that will never change. And I still haven’t experienced loneliness.

I also talked about the low-level anxiety that gets a little more invasive every day, especially as the unfolding horror show racks up more and more infections and deaths and gets closer and closer to home. That hasn’t changed. But I also understand that the anxiety, at least for me, has nothing whatsoever to do with being single or living alone. Single is still who I really am and living alone will always suit me best. Anxiety, I think, is just part of the human condition during a world-wide pandemic.

There is one other psychological experience I alluded to last time that is even more salient now: interest. What is happening is fascinating. We are living in a truly historic time. True, it is historically bad rather than good. Saddening and horrifying and tragic. But also intriguing. In stunningly short stretches of time, our personal lives change in fundamental ways and so does the state of the world. Pandemic life is a lot of things, but intellectually, it is never boring.

Small, Touching Pandemic Pleasures

Written on July 25, 2020

The peddlers of self-help, pandemic style, tell us that we should be savoring the small stuff. That comes naturally to me.

I’m a savorer. I’ve been here in Summerland, California since August of 2000 and not a single day has gone by when I have not gazed at the ocean or let the sun warm my face and felt immensely grateful to get to live here. (Well, maybe when I was fleeing the wildfires or trapped in place by the mudslides, but those are different stories.)

Good food is one of my favorite pleasures. I’ve looked longingly at all the social media posts by people spending their days baking. I do not dare bake an entire pan of brownies or a whole cake. I live alone. I’d share, but other people might fear that I’m giving them COVID cooties. (I doubt it. I’ve never had symptoms, but I’ve also never been tested.)

I’m not into self-deprivation or dieting, so I still want my sweet treats — and some freshly baked bread. It turns out that the lockdown in and around Santa Barbara has a charming underbelly. Local women, one after another, are taking up baking and offering their breads and cookies and scones and cinnamon buns to the rest of us. Some sell from their homes, others have teamed up with one or another of some very small local businesses.

I plan to sample from every last one of them.

The first time I ordered bread, the baker and I got our signals crossed about where I was supposed to pick it up. It was pouring rain when we figured out that we were sitting in lots in adjacent towns. I asked for directions, but she came to me instead. The bread was still warm as she handed it to me with her gloved hands, through my open window. I smiled from behind my mask. I saw her crinkled eyes above her mask and knew she was smiling back.

The next person was selling bread and scones. She asks what kinds of scones I want. I ask what kinds she has. She answers that she would probably not make more than four or five different kinds. I thought I was asking what kind she had — she was telling me she would make whatever I wanted, up to four or five different choices. I tell her I’d be happy with any two scones, any flavor. (It’s true.) A little later, she texts that she is thinking of making some cinnamon — she’s never tried that before. Do I want one of those? The next day, she leaves the bread and the two scones, charmingly wrapped, in a basket on her front porch. She comes to the door when she sees my car, and we both wave from behind our masks. The cinnamon scone was amazing.

My next outing was to a tiny restaurant offering curbside pickup. Their menu now includes homemade bread and cookies. Two kinds of cookies were available that day. I asked which one was better and ordered that one, plus the bread. When I got home and opened the bag, I found that she had given me both cookies, no charge for the second.

A few weeks ago, I saved a clipping from a local paper. Seriously — I got out a scissors and cut out a story from a printed paper. A local craft brewery was adding one food item to its list of beers — loaves of bread, baked by a relative of the owner. I called to see if that was still happening. I was told the bread was coming out of the oven that very moment. I drove over, stood on the other side of a small table outside the front door, and thanked the man who had my bread waiting for me.

Each of these experiences was just a small, fleeting human exchange, with no physical contact, ever. Yet I found every one of them to be oddly touching. I smiled on my way home, every single time.

I want the pandemic to be over. When it is safe (and only when it is safe), I want to be out and about again, sitting across from my friends at lunches and dinners, and strolling the streets and sidewalks and boardwalks, even when there are a lot of people around.

But if the local bakers recede along with the virus, that will make me sad.

[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Find my other stories on Medium here. Stories about being single during the pandemic that do not peddle the same old stereotypes are here. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links. Finally, my “Single at Heart” blog that I have been writing for Psych Central since 2011 is ending in 2020; I am updating many of those posts and moving them to this blog on Medium.]

“America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience,” according to the Atlantic. Author of “Singled Out.” Harvard PhD www.belladepaulo.com

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