Future Tense

Coronavirus Diaries: I Live in a Retirement Home. My World Is Shrinking.

An elderly woman stares off into the distance behind two hands holding a face mask that says "Coronavirus Diaries."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

Last week, they locked the doors and sealed them with yellow tape, giving this residence for 100 old people the appearance of a crime scene. Then they posted the signs announcing that no one from the outside—not family, not friends, not vendors, not anyone—could enter.

The visitors used to give shape and focus to our otherwise formless days. Yesterday, I had to check the dateline on my New York Times to remind myself of the day of the week. How could we know it was Monday without water aerobics and posture class? Wednesday was always tai chi with Eric, who told anecdotes about his time in China. Thursday there were lectures, often given by the former music critic of the Rocky Mountain News. Friday I could always count on a visit from one of my husband’s former students, who picked me up for lunch and an afternoon running errands—essential help, since these days I have trouble reading the labels on boxes and cans at the supermarket. Her stories about her week’s activities gave me welcome views of the outside world.

The family visits, of course, were the most important; even when it wasn’t our own grandchildren running in the halls or standing raptly in front of the huge aquarium, their presence always lifted our spirits. My daughter used to pick me up after work at least once a week and take me to her house. Over a home-cooked meal (a vast improvement over the institutional food I had been eating), we would watch Rachel Maddow or The Crown, catch up on each other’s news, or just hang out. When we said good night, I always got a sustaining hug. Now we settle for a FaceTime chat at the end of the day.

The restrictions arrived gradually. First, the corporate health officer announced that she would not be coming personally to tell us what changes were going to be made to protect us from the virus; she did not want to track in anything dangerous. Then we were told that the facility would no longer offer transportation to movies, concerts, restaurants, hair salons, or the homes of friends. Since most of us no longer drive, that retinue of white cars, parked outside the main entrance, had been our lifeline to the outside world. Anyhow, we’ve been told, now there’s nowhere to go. Even doctors aren’t seeing us—and this group usually sees lots of doctors. Everything now happens over the telephone. Not even the mailman can cross the threshold anymore. He leaves the mail at the main desk to be sorted by the staff, wearing gloves.

This was always a quiet place. You never heard raucous laughter in the hallways or any loud rock music emanating from our rooms, the way it did back in happier days when we had teenagers at home. But there were lots of conversations when we could still come together at meals. Yesterday—or was it the day before?—they closed the dining rooms to further limit potential contagion. Now they bag up our food in brown paper sacks, which we can pick up at carefully staggered times. No more than 10 people can congregate anywhere at once. One of the high points of the day is the appearance under the apartment door of the purple sheet of paper listing the next day’s food options. Touching is forbidden, of course. One of the residents had been incapable of passing anyone without giving a hug. Not now.

The powers that be are trying to keep us entertained with little pop-up workshops. I considered spending an afternoon learning how to make a velvet headband, until I reminded myself that neither of my granddaughters would ever let such a thing near her gorgeous long hair. They show movies—documentaries, operas from the Met, classic films, and recent Oscar winners. But you’d better get there in plenty of time, because the 11th person to enter the room will be barred.

Even at the best of times, this is not a jolly place. Reminders of fragility—wheelchairs and walkers and canes—are everywhere. The sound of an ambulance siren triggers a collective shiver, as everyone holds their breath and hopes the sound won’t stop at the front door. When it does, someone is in serious trouble. People are constantly disappearing—off to the hospital or rehab, or too unwell to leave their apartments. Even the apparently healthy fall apart before your eyes. Someone comes to a meal without her teeth. Someone else begins retelling an old story that wasn’t funny the first or second time. Someone can’t figure out exactly where he is, and then he is removed to “the other side”—out of “independent living” and over to “assisted living,” with extra attention and a separate dining room, or “memory care,” where you go when you don’t know who anyone is, including yourself. And frequently, of course, people die—hardly surprising in a population whose average age is pushing 90.

As the news comes in from around the country, I am reminded that our restrictions here are not that different from everyone else’s. Everyone is separated from friends and family. Everyone is missing out on familiar activities. Everyone is worried about the survival of that little place down the street. I wonder if the manicure salon within walking distance, staffed by young Korean women, will be able to hold on and if the staff can speak enough English to advocate for themselves.

And I wonder about the people here. Already, gaps are appearing—staff not showing up, managers staying home with a sick family member. Trying times. For me, and I think many of us in this most susceptible segment of the population, the most trying aspect is the exacerbation of the feeling we already often have: that we are a burden, particularly on our adult children but on the larger society too. Now we really are a burden. All we can do is not get sick. Not go to the hospital. Not call a doctor. And so I wash my hands. And then I wash them again. I sing “Happy Birthday” twice. And I feel useless.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.