January, a month of fewest births and most deaths, is where we stand fighting the latest variant of Covid. How wearying to be still writing about this unwelcome virus. But like glitter left from wrapping paper or cards, it won’t be dusted, swept, vacuumed, washed, or wished away. Lots of people have stories about trying to rid the nasty stuff from clothes or rugs or skin, but no one really knows the secret to beat the stuff. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay inside, but the hated Covid, like unwanted glitter, stays in the air.
Our family has a tradition of January births, even among in-laws. The older generation of January birthday holders has mostly passed, many on December dates, but there are four of us who are happy to celebrate. Birthday cake is a nice treat after holiday chocolates and cookies. Maybe there’ll be one more chance to get that sweater or book that wasn’t under the Christmas tree. Even better, everything is discounted and can be bought for yourself with little guilt. Even if there can’t be a party, there are safe ways to gather family or friends. If all fails, Zoom offers forty free minutes to talk with your relatives in sunny Florida.
“In the Bleak Mid-Winter” by Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst often runs through my mind at this time of year. Rossetti’s beautiful words describe winter: “Icy wind may moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like stone…” and that often experienced January weather of “Snow on snow on snow.” As soft and gentle as January is icy and lonely, versions by Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor and others fill my blue light time when it is neither day nor night. You have to sing through to the end of the song for its encouragement that “as empty as I am (of gifts for the Baby Jesus), I must give my heart.”
That is a magic message. If our basic physical needs are met, then we can push through January, holding each other tight inside our hearts until free once more to meet personally during spring’s warmer days. Until then call a friend, send a note, take a walk. We’ve figured this out and know how to make the weeks pass. In honor of the friends and family who are no longer with us to celebrate these January birthdays, I will treasure mine.
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.
Now that this COVID pandemic is largely over—or at least we hope—this may be a safe time to make a few confessions, one parent to another.
When the lockdown began last spring, we adjusted to working and schooling at home for what we thought would be a few weeks, at max. I thought, “Great! What an opportunity to spend more time with my kid!” I imagined a sweet vision of idyllic harmony as my tween daughter and I bonded even more as we read books, painted watercolors, went for walks in the neighborhood. I could even get more involved in her education. Ahhhh. It was going to be bliss!
It didn’t exactly turn out that way. Here’s what really happened:
I was often afraid my daughter would develop scurvy from her largely unregulated diet of carbs, salty snacks, way too much sugar, and way too few fresh fruits and vegetables. My frequent reminders to eat more fruit are met with “I’m full.”
I was frequently tempted to Google “feral children” after seeing my daughter’s hair in a mat of frizz after no one had bothered to brush it for days. We learned that grooming is overrated.
Pajamas often doubled as day wear (and vice versa), especially when we never left the house. And socks were wholly unnecessary, even on those rare occasions when we did need to go somewhere and there was snow on the ground. We learned to get by with a minimum of fuss.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I thought it just might be fun to homeschool. I must have been nuts. After months of distance learning mainly via Zoom, the best I could do was ask, “Aren’t you supposed to be in class now?”
More often than not, 4:00 p.m. rolled around and I found myself asking my daughter, “Did you eat lunch today?” I feared the answer would be “no” because I know I certainly didn’t make her anything. If I was lucky, she may have concocted a smoothie at some point during the day.
It’s okay for a developing child to go to bed at 11:00 p.m., right? After all, there was not much taxing her brain and body during the day. Every night as I watched the time tick closer and closer to my own bedtime, I cried out, “Why are you still up!?!”
I found myself suddenly more amenable to things that would have been hard and fast “no’s” just six months earlier. Case in point: getting a cat, to which I am allergic, and yet it was sold as a method of providing “emotional support” during these trying times. And where does said cat sleep? On my bed, since the cat has started waking up her “true owner” at 5:00 a.m. by biting toes.
After years of putting off entry into more social media, I acquiesced to creating an Instagram account, which has been appropriated by the tween and is mainly a vehicle for posting pictures of the cat and recipes for smoothies.
We quickly careened down the slippery slope of unlimited screen time. I don’t know how we got here. It seems so far from the reasonable and even idealistic standards I used to have—actual daily screen time limits of an hour or so. But this pandemic parent lost her will to enforce more limits.
While my daughter has never been a good napper and has always seem to not need that much sleep, I on the other hand, found myself growing more and more tired. I perfected the afterwork nap. Pandemic life is exhausting!
I found new delight in doing errands. All. By. Myself. Drives to the bank and post office have never been more satisfying. And even the excuse of going into my empty workplace was a welcome change.
Someone should really start a Parents Union with universally agreed upon work expectations, hours, duties, etc. The words “I am done for the day!” have slipped out of my mouth more than once—mostly at the end of what has seemed like an endless day. (See late bedtimes, above.)
I even tried going old school in the fall after we had been indoors way too much. Me: “You know, some parents just send their kid outside and say, ‘Don’t come in for an hour’.” Daughter: “Mom, you are NOT that parent.” Touché, kid.
So faced with my shortcomings, I swallowed my pride and admitted that the year knocked me for a loop. Then I mustered up some gumption to do it one more day. And then another.
Slowly, we have started leaving the house for school, for work, even to socialize with other people—in real life. As life begins to look a little more normal, we may even begin to miss each other a little (in the case of the tween) or a lot (in the case of the weepy mother). And then I will wish for all that time at home, when we rarely said “goodbye.”