As Covid progresses, older people find their courage wanes and their unease grows


Late one January night, Jonathan Coffino, 78, turned to his wife as they sat up in bed. “I don’t know how long I can do this,” he said sullenly.

Coffino was referring to the caution that has come to define his life during the covid-19 pandemic. After two years of mostly staying home and avoiding people, her patience is fraying and her distress grows.

“There’s a terrible fear that I’ll never get back to my normal life,” Coffino told me, describing feelings he’s trying to keep at bay. “And there’s a terrible sense of worthlessness.”

Despite recent signals that the grip of covid on the country may be easing, many older people are struggling with lingering discomfort, exacerbated by the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant. Even those who initially adapted well say their courage is diminishing or wearing out.

As young people, they are beset by uncertainty about what the future holds. But added to this is a particularly painful feeling that opportunities that will never come again are wasted, that time is running out and that death is closer and closer.

“People are getting more and more anxious, angry, stressed and agitated because this has been going on for so long,” said Katherine Cook, chief operating officer of Monadnock Family Services in Keene, New Hampshire, which runs a center for community mental health that serves seniors. .

“I’ve never seen so many people say they’re desperate and have nothing to look forward to,” said Henry Kimmel, a clinical psychologist in Sherman Oaks, Calif., who focuses on older adults. .

Certainly, the elderly have reason to worry. Throughout the pandemic, they have been at a much higher risk of becoming seriously ill and dying than other age groups. Even older people who are fully vaccinated and boosted remain vulnerable: More than two-thirds of vaccinated people hospitalized from June to September with breakthrough infections were 65 or older.

Kathleen Tate (Kathleen Tate)

The constant stress of wondering “Are you okay?” and “What will the future look like?” was difficult for Kathleen Tate, 74, a retired nurse in Mount Vernon, Washington. She suffers from late-onset post-polio syndrome and severe osteoarthritis.

“I guess I expected that once we got vaccinated the world would open up again,” said Tate, who lives alone. Although this happened for a while last summer, she largely stopped coming out as first the delta and then the omicron variants swept through her area. Now she said she felt “silent despair”.

It’s not something Tate talks about with friends, even though she craves human connection. “I see everyone dealing with extraordinary stresses in their lives, and I don’t want to add to that by complaining or asking for comfort,” she said.

Tate described a feeling of “flatness” and “exhaustion” that saps her motivation. “It’s almost too much of an effort to reach out to people and try to get me out of this place,” she said, admitting she watches too much TV and drinks too much alcohol. “It’s like I want to loosen up and go numb, instead of pulling myself together and trying to pull myself together.”

Beth Spencer, a recently retired social worker, smiles for the camera.  She has wavy gray hair and colored glasses.
Beth Spencer(Tillie Spencer)

Beth Spencer, 73, a recently retired social worker who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her 90-year-old husband, grapples with similar feelings during this typically harsh Midwestern winter. “The weather here is gray, the sky is gray, and my psyche is gray,” she told me. “I’m generally an optimistic person, but I have a hard time staying motivated.”

“I can’t figure out if what I’m going through is due to retirement or caregiver stress or covid,” Spencer said, explaining that her husband was recently diagnosed with congestive heart failure. “I ask myself, ‘What is the meaning of my life right now?’ and I have no answer.

Bonnie Olsen, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, works extensively with older adults. “At the start of the pandemic, many older people withdrew and used a lifetime of coping skills to overcome this,” she said. “Now, as people deal with this current surge, it’s like their well of emotional reserves are running out.”

Those most at risk are isolated and frail older adults, who were vulnerable to depression and anxiety even before the pandemic, or who have experienced severe loss and acute grief. Watch for signs that they are withdrawing from social contact or shutting down emotionally, Olsen said. “When people start avoiding being in touch, I become more worried,” she said.

Fred Axelrod, a 66-year-old from Los Angeles, looks at the camera.  He has wispy gray hair that falls slightly over his face.
Fred Axelrod(Fred Axelrod)

Fred Axelrod, 66, of Los Angeles, who has ankylosing spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis, lost three close friends during the pandemic: two died from cancer and one from diabetes-related complications. “You can’t go out and replace friends like that at my age,” he told me.

Now the only person Axelrod talks to on a regular basis is Kimmel, his therapist. ” I’m not doing anything. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go,” he complains. “There are a lot of times where I feel like I’m letting time go by. You start thinking, “How much time do I have left?”

“Older people are thinking about mortality more than ever and thinking, ‘How are we going to get out of this nightmare,'” Kimmel said. “I tell them that we all need to stay in the moment and do our best to keep busy and connect with other people.”

The loss was also a defining feature of the pandemic for Bud Carraway, 79, of Midvale, Utah, whose wife, Virginia, died a year ago. She was a stroke survivor who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm. The couple, who met in the Marines, had been married for 55 years.

“I became depressed. Anxiety kept me awake at night. I couldn’t take my mind off things,” Carraway told me. These feelings and feeling trapped throughout the pandemic “have gotten me pretty far,” he said.

Help came from an eight-week bereavement support program offered online by the University of Utah. One of the assignments was to compile a list of strategies for cultivating wellness, which Carraway keeps on her front door. Among the items listed: “Walk in the mall. Eat with friends. Volunteer. Join a bowling league. Going to watch a movie. Discover the centers for the elderly.

“I would circle them as I completed each one. I knew I had to get up and go out and live again,” Carraway said. “This program, it just made a world of difference.”

Kathie Supiano, an associate professor at the University of Utah College of Nursing who oversees covid bereavement groups, said the ability of older people to bounce back from setbacks shouldn’t be ignored. “It’s not their first rodeo. Many people remember poliomyelitis and the AIDS epidemic. They’ve been through a lot and know how to put things into perspective.

Alissa Ballot, 66, recently realized she could trust herself to find a way forward. After becoming extremely isolated at the start of the pandemic, Ballot moved last November from Chicago to New York. There, she found a community of new friends online at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, and her loneliness evaporated when she began attending events in person.

With omicron’s rise in December, Ballot briefly dreaded finding herself alone again. But, this time, something clicked as she reflected on some of her rabbi’s spiritual teachings.

“I felt myself stopped on a precipice looking into the unknown and suddenly I thought, ‘So we don’t know what’s going to happen next, stop worrying.’ And I relaxed. Now I’m like, it’s a blip, and I’m going to be okay.

We look forward to hearing from readers about the questions you’d like answered, the issues you’ve had with your care, and the advice you need for coping with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or advice.

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