“I haven’t worn a bra since March,” said my patient Jean, who’s in her mid-70s. “It’s not that I don’t care anymore—it’s just that nothing matters.” From Jean’s perspective, the ties that bound her to this world were slipping away. Life was narrowing. She felt isolated. In the past month, two of her friends fell on the sidewalk, the result of twitches in their brains that doctors couldn’t explain. “Old age, I guess. Nonspecific dilapidation.” The events riveted her, making her think that maybe she was next. She came to me dragging a cargo of frightful potential scenarios. She felt that nothing made a difference anymore—except to make things worse. “If I get the virus, it’ll be the last straw.”
During this pandemic, older people living alone have suffered silently. If they are not sick, they are terrified of getting sick. They cannot see their friends, and the initial Zoom calls have petered out. If back in the spring there was this sense that we’re all in this together, now in the fall there is the feeling that things are falling apart. “You know that idea that entropy is inevitable, that it’s a slow-motion law of physics? Well, I think we’re watching it in real time.” Jean can hardly remember when she last had fun. She resents the At Home section of the New York Times with its cheery depictions of cooking, gardening, and what she calls the “basket-weaving” view of life. “That’s for people with families,” she said, “and younger people.”
The pandemic has made Jean feel old. Up until it hit, she went to museums. She saw the latest films. She’d have breakfast or lunch with friends. But now nothing. Her married friends have turned inwards, worried about their own health and that of their spouses and grandchildren. Her unmarried friends are in her own position—basically scared, still sitting out a lockdown that has gradually lifted for other people. Jean wouldn’t dare go to a museum, even though they’re open now and have adopted social distancing measures. She walks around, but the people in outdoor cafes make her feel left out. “I could always cope with loneliness, maybe just because I had distractions. Now I don’t have any,” she said.
Last week, it was her birthday, and all these e-greetings arrived from dentists, her bank, her health insurance company, and the firm that manages her retirement account. “Oh, I just could have screamed,” she complained. “Not one normal person.” The greetings, all commercially motivated, felt dehumanizing. “I wrote to one of those dentists and told him to take me out of his computer—it gave me something to do. Besides, I don’t see him anymore anyway.” The idea that only a computer would remember your birthday seemed poignant. Jean said that she used to get funny downloadable e-cards from one of her friends, but that now she doesn’t.
“You know,” she said, “getting old is so impersonal. It’s like you’re watching yourself become a statistic.” The worst part was that while she felt she was aging in other people’s estimation (statistics have no individuality), she was also falling in line behind their estimation. Until recently, she hadn’t thought of herself as old. But now she does. It’s affected everything. She no longer bothers looking for men on Match or Ok Cupid, and Silver Singles makes her feel ancient—“All those 70-year old guys think they can get 50-year old women. I’d need some guy on his deathbed.” Besides, she didn’t think she wanted sex anymore, and all the men did.
Jean had broken up with her last boyfriend about eight years ago, and after that, she’d stopped having sex. Now sex seemed like a foreign country. She desperately wanted affection, but didn’t see how that was possible now—the virus, for one, and then the tricky position of offering friendship with no “benefits.” “No guy wants that. Or at least, he’d never admit it to himself that he did.” So, the loneliness continues, exacerbated by the threat of getting sick.
Jean had maintained a connection with one old boyfriend who now lived in Boston and taught at a major university. She always thought he should have married her, but their timing was out of sync. Now he lived with some wealthy woman. But he’d always come to New York for Jean’s birthday—ostensibly for a conference and to see his kids, but he wouldn’t have come at just this time if it weren’t for her. But of course, this year he couldn’t come. He was holed up at the country house that he and his partner owned in Maine, and he was getting ready to teach the semester remotely. Still, he set up a couple of Zoom calls with Jean.
“Oh, I felt so alive! We always have so much fun, and there’s such electricity between us.” Even on Zoom, which she said made her look 10 years older.
But as always when she spoke with Jonathan, there was so much regret. And repressed anger. “I’ve forgiven him, but I guess I really haven’t. Our timing was off because he was such a playboy back then.” When she and Jonathan would get together after so many years, she always wanted to tell him how she felt. But she never could. “I know that I grasp at the fleeting revival of how we used to be. I feel like I never stand up for myself when I don’t tell him how I feel.” She wondered how he felt. But in the end, she said, it didn’t matter. She wondered what did.
During this pandemic, we’re all trying to define what matters, and jettisoning stuff—like pricey amusements—that seem less important than human connection. We’re spending more time with family. Or, as Jean’s hated At Home section recommends, taking up activities that provide a sense of fulfillment. Great. But for some people, Jean among them, “priorities” have lost their meaning. They’re unachievable, or at least they believe that they are. For Jean, there’s no use of trying for new goals when you’ve already blown past them and inhabit a desert.
Jean’s “tragedy,” which she thinks is commonplace among her silent cohort, is that the pandemic has made her feel old before she was ready to be old. It’s closed off outlets that she might have pursued—ephemeral, to be sure, but still energizing and fleetingly meaningful. We talked about what she could do. Her old boyfriend suggested that she write a novel. “You’d be in it,” she told him. But she thought he couldn’t even imagine how he’d hurt the heroine (herself, of course, though young and beautiful at the time). Still, she thought she might give it a try. The effort might force her even further into herself, and push her into even greater proximity with her demons ... but it might also be cathartic. “Right now, I have no one to tell how I actually feel. I feel like I want to out myself.”
The pandemic has not been easy for people who are aging but still alert, even vigorous. They feel out of sync with all the advice to “adapt” and “grow,” but they understand that they have to nonetheless. Though Jean says that nothing matters anymore, she still has a sense of her own dignity. It may matter enough that she tries to preserve it.