Some of my friends are strict isolationists: They're locked down, venturing out only for a walk around the block. Food is delivered. Groceries wiped down. Family visits via FaceTime, Skype or a wave from the backyard. It is a point of pride that their grown children have laid down isolation rules for them--and insist they keep. And well they should: Many of them have serious underlying conditions and need to steer clear of any exposure.
Clearly, our children are worried about us. After all, adults over 65 account for 8 in 10 coronavirus deaths. No wonder they are scared that something dreadful may happen to us, and they won't be able to be there to come to our aid. So they have, in effect, become our parents--the ones who tell us what we can and cannot do. They're grounding us.
But there are those of us who find our backs stiffening when our grown children try to set limits on our activities, when they insist we stop shopping at supermarkets or taking long walks in public parks--even though we have no underlying conditions with the exception of our age.
The pressure to isolate ourselves comes from everywhere and is internalized in different ways. I went to my local farmer's market on Sunday (limited access to the grounds, masks on all) and overheard this little, old, grey-haired lady complaining bitterly to one of the vendors: Neighbors keep offering to pick up groceries (the nerve!) for her when she is fully capable of doing so herself. "There's nothing wrong with me," she huffed. "I don't feel I'm an old person. I can do anything they can do." Her children are pleading with her to stay home and not go out at all. "Why shouldn't I go out for a walk?' she complains, visibly shaking with anger. She was on a rant--too long and strident for my comfort. (I was next in line, so tick-tock.) But I understood what she was saying--and agreed with some of it.
Enough of us do that our grown children have taken to meeting in Zoom-rooms or other online chat spots to grouse about how ungovernable their aging parents are. They hear the statistics about deaths among the elderly and are sick with worry that their mom or dad will fall prey to the disease and they won't be there to comfort us. It's just like when they were small children and we worried they would run out into traffic. Only the roles are reversed now.
Although people our age are dying disproportionately from this dreadful disease, many of us are fortunate enough to be hale and healthy. We don't feel we need to live by more stringent rules than our neighbors. So, why are we less worried about ourselves than our children are about us?
I got a partial answer to that questions in a piece in the New York Times. There is, evidently, scientific research that explains why some of us seem almost cavalier in the face of the coronavirus death threat.
One finding is that, as older adults, we may not experience the same level of threat as younger people do. We have become, in effect, sunny side up. According to researcher Claudia Haase, there are "age-related shifts in the service of making negative emotions smaller and positive emotions bigger. Older adults are often masters in turning their attention away from information that is threatening, upsetting and negative.” The priority of older adults, she adds, is to make the most of their limited time on earth, and their highest value is social connection.
And then there’s this: We older adults may not see ourselves as old, even if we're well into our 70s and 80s. Here's Haase again: “Older adults may not think of themselves as being at heightened risk for Covid-19 because old age carries a lot of stigma. There’s a huge reluctance to view oneself in those terms.”
There may or may not be scientific research on another point: Some of us look ahead to the ills that could fell us and we think, "Better to go this way." That was a sentiment expressed by a friend of mine who lost her mother to breast cancer and who's faced several rounds of chemotherapy for the disease herself. The author of the NYTimes article, Julie Fingersh, reported a variation on that thought by her 88-year-old father. When she asked him if he were afraid of becoming sick from the virus, he answered, "What's to be afraid of? If I get it, Sayonara!"
The article was not written with us in mind. It was fodder for middle-aged children who wanted to "persuade blithe parents to respect the threat."
Good luck with that. Tara Brach has this zen-like advice for our grown children: "There has to be a letting go, because ultimately, you cannot control them. They're responsible for their living and dying."