It wasn’t easy finding people in their upper 80s or 90s who wanted to talk about how the current COVID-19 situation compares to other challenges they’ve faced in their lifetimes. Let’s face it, the numbers of individuals in those age groups are dwindling. Sadly, many are in situations where they aren’t willing or able to speak to a news reporter.
May is Older Americans Month, a time to recognize the contributions of older adults across the nation who have persevered and given back. I thought I would find concrete stories that compared today’s circumstances to war, to the Great Depression, and to personal setbacks.
Rather than answer questions as I had expected, the three individuals who talked with me instead offered different ways of processing what was going on. One put it into context with other very challenging times he had faced during his life. Another offered philosophical ways to get through it. The third used it to reflect on the fact that, until now, she really had not experienced anything like it, something for which she was profoundly grateful.
Here are stories from three individuals who reflected on their current situation—living sequestered in their homes—and previous life experiences. All three are waiting for a time when we will be able to return to our previous lives and roam free without worrying about contracting a disease that is wreaking havoc on the world, and especially on older adults.
Living without human touch is really bothering me
Dorothy Wilhelm, 86, was born in Kalispell, Mont., in 1934, at the end of the Depression. She grew up in the tiny town of Warland without electricity or running water, with a shared outhouse by the Kootenai River.
Wilhelm married an Army officer. The family moved 22 times in 20 years. She recalls hearing stories about the 1918 flu pandemic, where funeral homes were closed and people put corpses in their windows until they could be buried. She recalled that at the end of the Depression many people—including her parents—were homeless because they had no work. But she says it is not fair to compare today’s situation to those in the past.
“It’s a big mistake to try and compare this with other crises that we’ve seen. I don’t think you can compare pandemics with wars. There is no comparison. It’s different,” she said. “You have to go back to the Bible for a comparison to the plague. Let us appreciate its terribleness. We need to appreciate it for that.”
Wilhelm recalls the bombing of Pearl Harbor and seeing sights of great misery and privation when she lived in China with her husband.
She turns philosophical. “Of course, we’ll get through it. I think we need to look at where we are and say, ‘this is where we are, this isn’t comparable.’ By looking at it as a different thing, we’ll do better.”
Wilhelm continues to work full time as a professional writer, humorist, and newspaper columnist. She hosts two weekly podcasts, Swimming Upstream and Generation Gap, and last year released a new book, True Tales of Puget Sound. She communicates regularly with her six children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. But she doesn’t like being isolated.
“Having lived weeks without human touch is really bothering me. I miss hugs just terribly. I had not realized,” she said. “The idea of dying doesn’t bother me particularly. But dying alone is terrifying.”
Today’s situation? A piece of cake!
Werner Glass, 92, fled his native Germany in 1933 when Hitler was elected chancellor. Glass’s father was a pediatrician and heard that he could work in Shanghai, China. At age 6, Glass joined his parents and sister for more than 37 days on a ship headed to China. Once there, he attended an English-language school and his father eventually set up his practice.
Over the next 12 years, Glass witnessed the war between China and Japan, dodged anti-aircraft missiles that rained on the crowded city, lived through cholera, smallpox, and typhoid epidemics and, a month before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, received notice from the banks that everyone should withdraw all their money. “When banks ask you to withdraw your money, you know it’s really serious,” Glass said.
The family ended up stateless when they lost their German citizenship in China and were forced out of their apartment as well. Eventually they secured a single room in a brothel without heat or hot water, and spent the rest of WWII living in that room, trying to avoid getting sick or hit with falling anti-aircraft shells. Glass was kicked out of college when it was taken over by the Japanese. He found a spot in another school, where he stayed until the war ended in 1945. After his sister married an American soldier, she sent for him. He applied to 26 universities in the United States, got rejected by 24, but landed a spot at Syracuse, where he completed his engineering degree.
The rest, as they say, is history. He married Lois, they had three sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “A pretty calm life after I got to the states,” he said.
Today’s situation? “A piece of cake,” said Glass, who lives at Aljoya retirement home on Mercer Island and is still allowed to meet with a few other residents for exercise class and “brain fitness,” where they do puzzles and other intellectually stimulating activities. “These things happen. We’re all going to go. Some are more susceptible than others … If I make it to next month, I’ll be 93, and every day is a bonus day.”
He worries about the economy and the millions who have lost their jobs. “We have to do some balancing. Some people will die. Over time everyone will be exposed to the virus anyway because there’s no way to avoid that and within a year or so we’ll have a vaccine and forget all about it.”
I can’t think of anything that compares to this
Ruth Bovarnick, 89, admits she’s had an easy life. She was born in Boston and although she lived through the Depression and shared living space with her parents and grandparents, she doesn’t remember the struggles her family faced. She graduated high school at age 16 and immediately started working—eventually selling advertising and copywriting for a Boston radio and television station.
Her grandmother and mother’s brother both died in the 1918 flu pandemic, leaving her mother orphaned at age 15. But she persevered and was a wonderful mother, Bovarnick said. Eventually Bovarnick met her husband, Mike. When he fixed her up with another man who he thought she’d be more compatible with, she wrote him a note saying, “Why are you so leery of calling me dearie?” That reeled him in and the pair eventually got married and had three sons.
They ended up in Seattle when Mike found a job with Boeing and he spent his career between Seattle and New Jersey until they eventually made their permanent home in the Seattle area.
“I’ve had a lovely, lovely life,” she said. “I met the man of my dreams, who is sitting here playing bridge on the computer. I think we’ve been very fortunate in the fact that I have my husband and he has me.”
The current situation—where they’re sequestered in their retirement home apartment, unable to see their three sons and six grandchildren—is an unprecedented situation for her.
“I’m trying to think back on some bad times. I can’t think of anything that compares to this,” she said. “There have been ups and there have been downs. My dad was difficult to live with because he was shellshocked and gassed in WWI. That was nothing in comparison.” She recalls the polio epidemic when beaches around Boston closed for the summer, but has few recollections of WWII.
“My life has been … I’ve been very lucky,” she said. But she wonders about the future. “That is the frightening part of it. Will things be the same? We hope so. I think it will take a long time before things settle out.” But then she adds, “I can’t worry about it because there’s nothing I can do about it. Every day I hope and pray that tomorrow it will be all gone because I feel it’s doing such a terrible, unfortunate thing to so many people.”
Contributor Cynthia Flash is a media consultant, writer, editor, and owner of Flash Media Services.