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Seniors Continue To Draw On Past Challenges As COVID-19 Isolation Nears 3 Months

COVID-19 has been especially lethal to senior citizens. In Massachusetts, nearly 95% of the people who have died from the coronavirus were over 60. The average age of death is 82.

As older people continue to isolate themselves to protect against the virus, some are drawing on their many years of life to get through the pandemic.

The experiences of the elderly these past few months vary widely. Some live independently and have seen hardly anyone. Others are being cared for in residential homes, mostly confined to their rooms. And others are still going to work. 

"I take care of the elderly in the nursing home, give them baths, prepare them for bed, things like that," said Ula Richardson of Springfield.

Richardson is 78 years old. She works part time caring for patients with dementia. She wears a mask, goggles and a face shield.

At home, she has tried to strengthen her immune system.

"I drink a lot of ginger tea, lemon tea," she said. "In the morning I get up and drink my lemon water. I was doing a lot of stuff to keep myself healthy."

Richardson has eight grandchildren, who she only sees from a distance now or on Facetime. Earlier in her life she raised her five children, on her own. She said her faith helped her then – and now.

"We pray," she said.

She prays every morning around 7 with a “prayer friend” over the phone. And every Wednesday, with about five others sitting far apart in her church, she prays to God.

"He's protecting me," Richardson said. "I'm still standing. I don't have no cough. I don't have no symptoms or nothing. And that's just by the grace of God."

Being close to a religious group or family can soften the fear of the virus and the isolation.

Some senior organizations are phoning the elderly who are alone to let them know someone is thinking of them. The Northampton Senior Center started a pen pal program with elementary school children. And it launched online classes in things like pollinator-friendly gardening, Tai Chi and exercise.

"For people who have technology, it is a big change not being on site, but they are still seeing their peers," said Marie Westburg, director of Northampton Senior Services.

But Westburg said there are also seniors without computers, cable TV or even a television.

"They’re very isolated and we’re very concerned about the detriment of that kind of isolation the longer this goes on," she said.

Marie Westburg, who runs the Northampton Senior Center, and Edwin Nartowicz, 96. The center has closed because of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
Marie Westburg, who runs the Northampton Senior Center, and Edwin Nartowicz, 96. The center has closed because of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Edwin Nartowicz is tired of the isolation, but he’s also staying healthy. He’s 96 and lives in assisted living in Northampton. He longs for his normal routine.

"I used to go to the World War II Club on Wednesdays and have a meal, get together with all the old guys that were there, and we'd go play pool," Nartowicz said. "I miss all that stuff."

Phone calls from his children help — a lot. Nartowicz can go for a short walk, but like other seniors in residential facilities, he’s mostly confined.

"It's not easy to stay in one place all day long," Nartowicz said.

He particularly misses being physically active, which he said keeps his mind sharp.

"I used to go to the YMCA like four or five times times a week. I'm the oldest one at the YMCA — oldest member!" he said.

Even though he wants to get back to his activities Nartowicz takes the virus seriously and plans to take it slow as things open up downtown.

"I'm not going to go down until I find out everything's going to be good...until maybe a month or so to see if the virus all died out," he said. "I'm not going to be in any hurry to get down there."

Like Nartowicz, Bill Grogan also misses his pre-COVID routine. 

"I want to get out," Grogan said. "And I want to see people's faces!"

The 67-year-old retired nurse is at home with his husband, Michael Zimmerman, and stays busy with six or seven daily activities, like biking.

"Exercise is one thing. Reading is one thing. Writing is another thing. Perhaps getting out and listening to the birds and so forth," he explained. "And that’s how I get through the day."

He’s even embroidering.

Michael Zimmerman and Bill Grogan have been isolating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
Michael Zimmerman and Bill Grogan have been isolating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grogan yearns to browse in a bookstore, but considers himself high risk — and is wary as things open up.

"It's going to be a very cautious reawakening," he said.

Grogan said his experience with another virus has shaped how he’s going through this period. 

"I knew people who were fine one day, sick the next and gone the next," he said, referencing the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. "That was a time of great uncertainty. I and many other people like me wondered, 'Oh, my gosh. Were we infected?'"

He said his experience during the AIDS epidemic has “flavored” how he see this crisis.

"I live my life the best I can. I try to be as good a person as I can," Grogan said. "And if my life ends because of COVID or any other reason, then so be it."

Grogan, like other older people, is drawing on the challenges he has faced in the past, to find a way through this pandemic. 

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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