Future Tense

What It’s Been Like to Have the Entire Country Dedicated to Protecting You

Bubble wrap.
Those in their 80s and 90s have been living in bubble wrap for a year. David Maier/Unsplash

2020 was a difficult year for everyone. But the shape those difficulties took was different, depending where in life’s journey you happened to find yourself. For families with children, forced to juggle school and work and the mechanics of daily life, there was too much togetherness. For those of us in our 80s and 90s, there wasn’t nearly enough.

I began the pandemic in a facility for the elderly that rapidly became almost prisonlike.
As the pandemic worsened, keeping us safe became an obsession, with restrictions piled on restrictions. All contact with the outside world had to be eliminated. Even the suspicion of a case would elicit a command over the loudspeaker for all residents to return immediately to their apartments, where we would not be permitted even to cross the threshold until the results of the test were known. The dining room and all the public rooms were closed; the outside doors were locked; the mail carrier had to leave his bundles outside the front door for the staff, masked and gloved, to unpack and sort. Even family members were barred, not only from the premises but even from the benches outside. At one point, all visitors had to remain in their cars calling to their family member through opened windows. Accepting a parcel directly from the ungloved hand of a family member, rather than the gloved hand of a staff member, was forbidden. When a resident’s husband died, her daughters were not permitted in her apartment, not to support her in her grief nor to help her remove her husband’s heavy jackets and trousers from their closet. When we were offered a rare treat, root beer floats in the patio on a lambent spring day, the executive director came running out to warn us to disperse, as if we were disobedient children testing limits.

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Attitudes slowly evolved—from stoic, shrug-of-the shoulders acceptance of life’s capriciousness into downright fear. The residents began to absorb the surrounding panic and seemed to accept that their very lives were in danger, and that their survival depended upon accepting the conditions imposed. They even began the odious practice of spying on one another, perhaps motivated by fear of infection, perhaps by the desire to earn obedience credits with the management. Residents whose windows overlooked the patio were known to call the executive director to report anyone standing too close to a visitor.

At one point, we were permitted to take walks with family members outside, but we first had to sign an “attestation”—a piece of paper testifying that we promised to wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart. And when we returned, we had to sign another piece of paper “attesting” to the fact that we had abided by the rules and had not entered any forbidden space—like the car or home of a family member.

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These infantilizing restrictions exacted a crushing toll on our spirits. The endless recitation of how vulnerable, how fragile, how susceptible to disease we were undermined the autonomy we old people cling to. We struggle to maintain as much independence as possible. Many of us were unable to use the electronic devices that much of the world relied on to overcome isolation. Without up-to-date computers able to handle the demands of Zoom, without iPhones and the competence to understand them, we were deprived of the comfort of seeing the faces of those who sustain us.

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And always in the background was our awareness of the canopy of grief extending over the country. At our age, we have all said countless ultimate goodbyes, and so we always live with ghosts. Our isolation, combined with the pervasive grief of the country, exacerbated the sorrow we always carry with us and weighed on us with particular heaviness.

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Even though now we are all vaccinated, we have not found the liberation we crave. We hear the warnings about lethal mutations and the injunction to continue wearing masks that make it impossible to see who is smiling. We are still enjoined to stay far apart. We worry about our adult children still unvaccinated, and since we still can’t travel, and most of our grandchildren live in distant places, we still cannot hug them. Even if the worst is behind us, what remains is bad enough.

As we mark the somber anniversary of this COVID year, we face a murky future. Of course, the future is never knowable, but for the elderly, this one looks particularly uncertain. Lacking the confidence of the young, who see change as a challenge, we contemplate it with concern. We are already struggling to maintain our balance—literally and figuratively. With everything—work, sport, play, school—redefined, will we find our bearings in the world we return to?

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During the intifada, friends in Israel told me about the adjustments they made to a world at war. They never left their apartment without making a point of saying goodbye to one another. Spontaneous excursions were abandoned. Everything was evaluated for risk: a trip to the mall, to the grocery store, to the movies. They considered the news, the bus route. Is that where we are headed? Are we there now?

An old friend and theater enthusiast, with whom I shared many memorable performances since our teenage years, told me she had broken her theatergoing habit. She did not know when, or even if, she would ever feel able to return to sitting shoulder to shoulder in a crowded space. A sophisticated New York friend questioned how long it would be before she would eat in a restaurant. How many other habits have we broken and how many different ones adopted? For how long will we regard others with wariness, as possible vectors of disease? Is community something we have permanently lost?

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With workers returning to offices only a few days each week, what will become of the steel towers that have defined our cities whose streets we once walked with such comfort and assurance? If audiences are too fearful to fill our theaters, our concert halls, our galleries, our neighborhood restaurants, what will become of our artists, our performers, our cultural and culinary life? In many communities, large and small, old people form a significant proportion of the audiences and financial backers of arts organizations. If they are too shellshocked to stay involved, how significant will their defections be? Will street life—stands with funky jewelry and colorful scarves and odd artifacts—ever again appear?

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In October I fled from the restrictive facility to a new and more reasonable place where residents were treated like the adults that we are. After two COVID-19 tests and a brief quarantine, we were free to come and go, trusted to behave responsibly. More important, our family members were welcomed, affording us the empathy and support we craved. Nonetheless, like everyone, we cannot avoid the awareness that this capricious, lethal menace is still with us and there is no way of knowing when or even if it will be banished. And so, along with everyone else, we wait and hope.

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

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