Future Tense

I Need a Hug

In my retirement home, we are isolated for our own protection. But it’s getting harder.

An old woman's hands, holding a cane.
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.

In March, Elaine Yaffe wrote for Coronavirus Diaries about her life in a retirement home. Now, she’s updating us on how life has changed—or not.

I need a hug. Now. Even more than a haircut. More than a popcorn-fueled movie in a theater with a big screen and resonant sound. More than a leisurely dinner in a restaurant with chatter all around. More than sitting comfortably on a park bench without wiping it off. More than climbing easily into a Lyft or an Uber. More than making a routine appointment with a doctor to have some ache checked out. More than running an errand to the hardware store. More than strolling through Whole Foods enjoying the colors of the luscious fruit. More than taking a ride in a car with the windows open and the breeze blowing. I desperately need the warmth of another body welcoming me into a tight embrace.

At almost 83, I don’t believe I have ever gone this long without some contact with another human being who meant something to me. There were the days when little children were always climbing in my lap, of course. But even when they grew up, they got a good-night hug or a welcome-home embrace after an absence. My friends and I would greet one another with a hug. And then there were grandchildren, whose hugs were the best.

The isolation in which I live is crushing my spirit. I live in a facility for the old. It is not a “nursing home” where, we are told, people are perishing in significant numbers, where, in the cogent headline of a New York Times print headline, we are “sitting ducks.” This is more or less an apartment building, and no one yet has become infected with the virus. But that does not stop the panic from being palpable. What if? What if even one person were to become infected? What if one of the staff, the housekeepers, maintenance workers, kitchen workers, or caregivers who come in and out every day were to get the virus? Then what? And so the restrictions are fierce. No contact with family members or anyone else. Above all, absolutely no hugs.

Maybe I am feeling so cruelly isolated because I came of age in New York City, where crowds were ubiquitous, where space is at such a premium that restaurant tables were usually so close together that the people at the next table could look over your shoulder and think nothing of asking what you were eating.

I remember sometimes craving time for myself—quiet, solitary time. Now with this oppressive silence always enveloping me I cannot believe I will ever again complain about too much background noise in a restaurant. I miss background noise. I miss the crush of people surrounding me. I do hear of other people now trying to navigate in homes that have suddenly become too small, craving time by themselves. Some are celebrating the new simplicity of their lives without distractions. Now there is time to return to simple pleasures. I am told that supermarkets are out of yeast. Apparently everyone is baking. Not me. I crave society. I want to stop eyeing other people with fear, as if they might be harboring this insidious disease.

Necessity is the mother of much, and so I have gotten proficient at joining meetings on Zoom, though its disembodied nature troubles me—it can exacerbate the isolation, the loneliness, the disconnection. I even attended a Zoom funeral—a very strange, sad experience. But even on a happy occasion, Zoom cannot ameliorate the crushing quiet that surrounds me. Similarly, watching a movie on Netflix on my iPad is not the same as watching it in the physical company of others. It is less. Even in a theater of strangers, there is still some sense of community, of people sharing a common experience.

What makes it worse, of course, is not knowing when, and actually even if, it will end.
Maybe a vaccine will arrive, like a knight on a white horse, to rescue us. It is supposed to be here in a year, or maybe 18 months. And then it will take some time for production to ramp up so that it will be available. And the question in the back of the minds of all the old people who inhabit this facility is: Will it get here in time for us? Once you cross the Rubicon of the eighth decade, a year is a very long time. We octogenarians don’t generally make plans too far into the future. There is no way to know how many years we have left. So it is particularly painful to imagine living the few years we do have in this half-life, cut off and solitary.

Loneliness and isolation are the well-known hazards of old age. So it is ironic that a facility designed and organized to combat those hazards should be doing its utmost to cut us off—not only from everything in the outside world, but also even from one another. It is all to try to guarantee that we will all make it to the other side of this plague.

We old folks are being constantly told that we are the most vulnerable, which is true in terms of the death toll. But it is the young who are sacrificing the most, and that seems horribly unfair. It is their educations, their futures, that are being cruelly disrupted. It would be hard to find a grandparent in this facility who would not gladly give up some months or years that we already know are limited, to grant more opportunities to our grandchildren. We want them to have their college years unencumbered. We want them to have their youth back.

As for me, all I really want, right now, is a long, sustaining hug.

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