A screeching, beeping monster clawed a mountain of dirt from my front yard, pirouetting in a repetitive mechanical dance.
In a surprising moment of consideration, the monster’s keepers preserved my ratty, overgrown boulevard garden, which fringed the gaping hole where sidewalk used to be. As if that garden is worth the care they gave it! They didn’t know I’d gladly be rid of the hosta and daylilies.
Workers in neon green coveralls appeared waist deep in the front yard. Urban prairie dogs. Do they like standing in holes, dirty and damp? Being where the rest of us don’t go? Searching for a pipe—hidden—but not exactly a treasure.
Weeks later, cars still charge up to the roadblock in disbelief, apparently thinking, You can’t stop me, I’ll get through. Some seem to contemplate launching à la Thelma and Louise over the one-foot precipice into the scraped dirt and escaping, only to accept reality, veer into a nearby parking lot, and cut through the alley. Back on their way.
That’s how this summer, or really this whole year, has felt because of COVID. We’ve hurried toward the life we wanted, only to see—again—not here, not now. Go around, adapt, try again.
At night it’s peaceful. No clattering buses driving by. No thumping bass from passing cars or snatches of song from cyclists.
Several years back, while serving on the board of the Vital Aging Network, I helped develop Aging With Gusto, a program designed to help people develop more positive views of aging and live their own lives with gusto.
Research shows that people with more positive views of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with more negative views. What’s more, people who perceive their elder selves as a burden to others tend to view their lives as less valuable, which in turn increases their risk of depression and social isolation, both of which have proven to be “silent killers” for older adults.
I felt like I was doing pretty well when it came to living with gusto—I was working less and enjoying life more—but then COVID came along and all my gusto got up and went away-o.
So did the me I knew…and liked.
That me juggled a lot of things at once, effortlessly kept track of deadlines, friends’ birthdays and bill due-dates. She walked 10,000 steps a day, volunteered often, went to yoga on Saturday mornings and loved getting together with friends, even if it meant driving across town in rush-hour traffic.
She also traveled. In 2019, she spent February and March in Panama, May in New York City and much of that summer and fall at a rustic fishing resort near the Canadian border. In 2021, she was set to spend March and April with her sister and her family in Los Angeles, but that trip was cut short due to COVID. So were other travel plans.
And now, roughly 18 months later, I’m no longer she.
My hair, which I used to color blonde, is now gray. My face has new wrinkles. My skin, once taut, is now crepe-y. And while I know these changes took time to develop, it feels like these changes occurred practically overnight while I was quarantining due to COVID.
And the changes aren’t just on the surface. Last summer, after walking became so painful I stopped doing it any more than was absolutely necessary, I was told I need hip replacement surgery. With elective surgeries advised against at the time, I’ve put it off, which is why, when friends invited me to walk with them (one of the few things that felt safe enough to do), I declined.
Instead, my friends and I did a few Zoom calls. Then, because looking presentable wasn’t high on our lists, we talked on the phone. Eventually even that got to be too much, in part because many of us were dealing with some big stuff. Not used to being together 24/7, my partner and I were struggling to get along. One of my sisters and her husband almost lost their business. One friend had pancreatic cancer. Another had a husband with a brain tumor and a son who nearly died from alcohol poisoning.
Living through—and aging—during a pandemic has caused so many of us to reprioritize. As a result, rather than traveling and enjoying many of the other out-and-about activities that we enjoyed pre-pandemic—we are busy taking care our relationships, our livelihoods, our health and the health of our loved ones. No one can blame us; it’s the right thing to do.
But the pandemic has made everything more difficult, more urgent, more immediate. And more solitary. In the process of caring for ourselves and our loved ones, we risk isolating ourselves from support we may desperately need. Doing so can be costly: one study says isolation increases the risk of death by 29 percent, another that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
So, I’m working on reclaiming my Aging-with-Gusto mindset by being more proactive in maintaining my own social connections: I’m calling at least one friend or family member each day and sending at least five cards each week. While these are small things, I know from being on the receiving end that they can make a difference. Plus, it’s one thing I can do no matter what is happening with COVID. I call it Gusto Lite, but at least it’s a start.
What are you doing to age with gusto? Please share.
In a recent yoga class, the teacher suggested a meditation on the idea of enough. Not scrimping but having what you need. The opposite of greedy excess. Just enough. I’ve been thinking about that often in this odd summer of highs and lows.
In June, much of what I’d longed for during the long, oppressive COVID winter seemed within reach.
Summer’s simple pleasures beckoned. Sunup at 5:30, sunset after 9:00. Walking early. Flowers everywhere. I’d plant my vegetable garden, visit the farmers market, and go to the beach.
Even better, I could be with family and friends easily, outdoors. Take a modest driving vacation.
I could contemplate more ambitious plans like visiting my siblings and extended family in Ohio and Wisconsin after two years apart because of COVID.
We had the joy of our younger son’s June wedding and the afterglow of our older son’s May wedding.
So many good things!
As June turned to July, those big helpings of happiness were tempered by sobering swallows of reality. High temperatures and humidity smothered the Twin Cities for weeks on end. Walking and gardening became chores I scheduled for early morning or close to sunset when the air was cooler and the breeze picked up a little.
The beach, farmers market, and outdoor gatherings with family, book group, and my writers’ groups remained carefree and fun despite the weather.
July’s high heat and drought shrank Minnehaha Creek and crisped lawns. Hazy smoky air from western and northern wildfires shrouded the Twin Cities. What have we done to the climate? Why aren’t we doing something about it??
Less visible but equally scary was the delta variant’s arrival. “Maybe we’ll need to wear masks again,” became “Damn. We have to mask up.” With that realization came the sludge of past fears and present worries about risk. Ugh.
While driving to see family in Wisconsin and Ohio, I’ve been masked and careful. Hugging them and talking naturally—in person, like pre-COVID—has felt so good. I’m so grateful we’re all still here.
As August swings into September, the weather has moderated a bit, but distant wildfires are still burning and the delta variant is more widespread. My worries about climate and health persist and I consider: have the summer’s highs outweighed the lows? Have they been enough? For me, yes. It’s hard to argue with the joy of happily married sons, the addition of wonderful daughters-in-law, or the pleasure of sharing a good meal with the family I’ve missed. All’s not right with the world, but my portion of well-being is enough.
I don’t enjoy wearing a mask. The elastic turns my ears elfish. Wearing my glasses cocked to hold down the mask alters my vision. And whoa, somebody’s breath sure stinks inside this mask! You’d think I’d be ecstatic that the CDC has said that in many settings, vaccinated people like me no longer have to wear a mask or distance.
Instead, I’m discombobulated. Not quite ready. I understand the rationale behind this policy change, but am struggling to process it.
COVID has been a harsh teacher. The randomness of who got deathly ill or who experienced long term debilitating effects kept me careful. My sister, who is a respiratory therapist, told me stories of her grueling ICU shifts. Awareness that COVID was real and deadly became a form of low-level anxiety. Unwinding that daily concern will take time.
When a friend I rarely see said she’d be in town and asked if we could go out to dinner, my immediate reaction wasn’t yippee! It was, I’m not sure. Am I ready to eat inside a busy restaurant? Could we do patio dining instead?
I do love hanging out unmasked with vaccinated family and friends. Masked, you learn to look at people’s eyes to see if they’re smiling or preoccupied. Now the full range of our expressions is visible.
Nevertheless, I’m not throwing out my masks. After 14 months of caution, I recognize the risk is reduced but not gone. Besides, although the state of Minnesota rescinded the mask mandate, Minneapolis and St. Paul have maintained it for a while longer.
Yet I remind myself that the point of living through a pandemic is to be alive. Fully. Masking narrowed my vision and limited my sense of possibility. After more than a year of looking inward, turning outward again will be good.
Since the pandemic began I’ve told myself the quarantine restrictions were “for now.” That my real life would begin again later.
Surprisingly, I was fairly patient with this odd limbo. Although I had bad days sometimes, I accepted that living with restrictions was necessary. I could handle this. My life was not all I wished for, but I could be content within the new parameters.
And seriously, I have nothing to complain of.
Despite my acceptance I felt a level of distraction, a channel of disruption or low-key anxiety running in the background, keeping me from being wholly engaged in my days.
Perhaps I was sparing myself from comprehending the limits and freaking out about them. But I was also banking my fires, saving my fully present self for later. As if this wasn’t my real life.
After nearly 10 months, I understand I can’t keep holding back. This IS my real life. The days, weeks, months are ticking by. I won’t get them back. There’s no psychic bank account where the losses are preserved, waiting for me to claim them, and restore them to my life.
My days are different from what I imagined they would be right now, but I remind myself that I’m already doing a lot of what I like to do. I’m still writing. Reading. Volunteering. Finding other creative outlets. I’m not as connected with friends and family as I’d like to be, but I call or video chat with them.
I haven’t completely figured out how to be immersed in this life, but I know that’s the answer.