Transitions with the Aging Rebels

Nancy K. Schlossberg with a personal and professional perspective on pandemic transitions for more senior people.

I know how it feels to be old. The wrinkles do not diminish the desire to love and be loved, to touch and be touched, to be socially engaged, and to help myself and others find meaning and purpose.  

On a personal level, I have been widowed after a 48-year marriage, followed by going online and meeting an 85-year-old man who became my partner for five years until he developed dementia. For the first time I am living alone, but with the same need I always had for connection, affection, and attachment. 

Professionally, as a 90-year-old counseling psychologist and retired professor, it seems like only yesterday that I was promoting attachments, even romance, hugging and kissing for those 80 and over. In fact, my last book Too Young to Be Old (2017) highlights the importance of social engagement, even romance if you want it. 

Now we are in the midst of a dramatic transition from being encouraged to keep our ‘dance card’ full with the names of prospective partners, or where we could actually hire a ‘hugger’ to combat the loneliness epidemic, to a world where isolation is a necessity and there is no touching. The spread of the disease has forced us into this unexpected, unwanted transition that is changing our way of being in the world. It is filled with ambiguity, has no end point, and is out of our control.

For example, Jill is very depressed. Her husband’s dementia is accelerating; he sleeps most of the time. Except for her weekly visit to the grocery store, she is afraid to leave him since he falls. As she said, “If I knew when this would end maybe I could relax. I feel like spaghetti without the sauce.”

The importance of transition

My professional work has focused on developing a theory that identified the factors that influence how people understand and manage the inevitable transitions all through life. My understanding of the pandemic’s effect on older people is guided by my research on numerous transitions (2017), plus my volunteer work with the Senior Friendship Centers in Sarasota, Florida. As co-leader with Michael Karp, retired lawyer, our group, The Aging Rebels, discuss issues of intimacy, loneliness, invisibility, irrelevance… and now, the impact of Covid-19. 

The need for attachment, connections, intimacy coupled with the fact that our attachments are growing fewer and weaker is of paramount concern. Older people are always in danger of losing attachments, but the risk is even greater now. Since the virus entered our lives, we lose attachments not just from ‘natural’ death or other typical causes such as moving to a new area or retiring. Now our personal connections, whether with family, neighbors or peers, are also threatened by the new, more restrictive dimensions of our lives: isolation in our homes to avoid social contact, and especially, the need to abstain from physical contact.

Attachments keep us going from day to day, they give us purpose, and they play a key role in making life worth living. We all need to be loved and to love, to hug and be hugged, to have one person to count on for unconditional support, and to have others we care about who care about us. In other words, we need multiple attachments. 

Psychiatrist John Bowlby coined the term attachment theory (1956). His original work focused on children’s fundamental need to have a steady, stable attachment figure, defining attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’. Since then, a number of articles and books have focused on adults’ need for attachment. This literature covers the components of attachment theory, the importance of attachments as buffers to loss, and the central role that attachments play in promoting well-being as one ages, especially since ‘given the increased potential for separation, loss, and vulnerability associated with aging’ (Bradley & Cafferty, 2001, p.20). Clearly, this is no longer a children’s issue; it is a lifelong concern. 

The loss of attachments can result in a deadly affliction – loneliness. The development of a Social Isolation Index pointed out that social isolation and loneliness cause mortality in older men and women (Steptoe et al., 2013.) More recently, anarticle in AARP Magazine summed up these startling findings: ‘Loneliness is a killer … It makes us more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, suicide, even the common cold. It’s more dangerous to our health, researchers tell us, than obesity, and it’s the equivalent of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day’ (Darling, 2019, 2020). It is imperative that we develop strategies to avoid loneliness. 

The pandemic transition

Seniors respond differently to the virus and social distancing depending on the degree to which the pandemic has changed four aspects of their lives: assumptions, routines, roles and relationships. The more changes, the more challenges. 

A transition can be an event like the pandemic or retirement or great grandparenthood. But it can also be a non-event like not getting to retire as planned, missing the birth of a great grandchild or the delay in your daughter’s wedding. In either case, a transition has the effect of changing, our assumptions, routines, roles and / or relationships (Schlossberg, 2017, p.46). I discussed these changes with members of The Aging Rebel Group, plus other community and professional groups with which I am involved. Their comments and experiences offer clues to how our own, as well as society’s, response to the virus may shape the futures of the elderly. 

Assumptions: We have expectations about our lives, our world, our futures. Covid-19 has forced all of us, but especially older individuals, to realize that we are vulnerable to a virus that could kill us. Death and disease can remind us that our time to accomplish goals or complete ‘bucket lists’ may be more limited than we thought.

Yet the restrictions on our lives have also created time gaps that can lead in new, productive directions, even as we are locked down in our homes. For example, the New York Times reported on a 90-year-old man who is starting a literary agency (Leland, May 3, 2020). Another example is Richard, 82, an artist whose gallery is closed, who bought and refurbished a guitar and is learning how to read music. 

Michael Karp, co-leader of Aging Rebels, summed up his changing assumptions: “The virus and how it is changing our lives and assumptions about the world is something I think about and discuss with my groups all the time. It is under the heading, ‘What is the New Normal?’ What will the New Normal look like when this is behind us? How will we, as people, communicate with each other? Will we continue to practice safe distancing? Will we ever again hug and embrace a good friend? Will this experience teach us more about the meaning of love and provide more compassion for others? Will this make us more sensitive to what less use of fossil fuels can do to purify our air and water quality and make the Planet a safer place?”

Routines: For many, going from a fairly structured life to what feels like a free fall can be unnerving. Natalie shared her need to organise her day. “I do something educational like reading a book, or watching YouTube on a challenging topic; volunteer to be part of a helping committee in my community; and do something fun and/or creative. Yesterday I learned about Churchill’s life, volunteered to call people to see how they were doing and ordered Maine lobsters for dinner.”

Marcia and her significant other Stan, both in their mid-80s, had a monogamous relationship for several years but lived in separate apartments in the same city. Instead of weathering the crisis reading, cooking or listening to music alone in separate apartments, they offer each other mutual support and make the best of the situation by ascending to the roof of her apartment building to dance free-style. 

Myra lives in a senior community with a great deal of outdoor space. During this period, she and several others agreed to meet every night at 7 pm to bike around the property. This provides structure to her evenings, provides socialisation, and is fun. She added, “And if I don’t go, I don’t feel guilty.” 

Roles: Carol, a 67-year-old nurse practitioner in a neurology clinic, had to give up community outreach and educational projects to become a virtual and phone ‘clinician’. Interacting ‘in different ways with patients’ families has been nice’, and she is pleased to virtually see patients whose dementia makes it hard for them to get to the clinic. But she also suffers from the loss of human contact, both with patients and with clinic staff. Although the exact details are not clear, she knows that she will not be able to slide back into her previous role in a system where revenue has declined and many staff have been laid off.  

Relationships: As described earlier, loss or weakening of attachments as a result of social distancing and isolation is one of the biggest challenges of this period in our lives. 

On the negative side, I feel the loss of physical, in-person connection with my children and grandchildren. Zoom and FaceTime are great but they do not substitute for a hug or the visit my daughter and two grandchildren had to cancel recently because of the virus.  

On the positive side, Henry, 82, one of the Aging Rebel members who became a pastor in his seventies wrote: ‘We have the luxury of using this enforced down time for reading, conversation and reflection on life past and future. We grieve for the many neighbors who have a less comfortable present and an uncertain future.’ 

One of the Aging Rebels finds that people are calling to see how she is, not just to make arrangements to meet. And many are reconnecting with people from the past. I read about two Holocaust survivors who lost touch after the war. They recently found each other and developed a meaningful relationship. And then there is a new UK study which found: ‘70% percent of the nation admit they’ve been in contact with elderly relatives more in recent weeks, than in the past year. 54% of older (over 65’s) Brits feel closer to family & that relationships with family members have strengthened, & 61% feel more loved by family since lockdown.’ (Press Release, April 30, 2020.) 

Paths to the future

For the elderly who are poor, unemployed, homeless, or suffering from chronic illness, the change occurring now is almost certainly exaggerating the difficulties they already faced. We also knew that there was ‘a loneliness epidemic’ before Covid-19 appeared – an epidemic that affected people across the socio-economic spectrum. But I am suggesting that while all older individuals face enormous changes as a result of the pandemic, within this group the ones who suffer the most are those with fewer resources (financial and emotional).

Seniors can respond to the transition by analyzing the degree to which their life has changed and then strategise ways to shore up the weak spots to enhance their prospects for the future. For example, if a planned retirement is delayed – maybe forever – a worker will probably experience a period of grieving for what might have been. If the pandemic has forced a change in our routines, we can develop a new structure for the day. If the change has interrupted relationships, we can stay in touch – if not by physical touch, instead by e-mail, phone, or Zoom. And most important, when our assumptions have been shattered, we must strive to realize today is not forever and we will survive this.  

There’s a tendency to focus on the litany of negatives that the virus has brought to the lives of the elderly – worries about dying alone, grieving for friends or relatives who have died, inability to play with grandkids, or to join friends for coffee at a local café every day – as well as uncertainty about the future. However, if we try to address the transition in the ways I describe above, ‘The New Normal’ for older persons for the next six months and beyond will not necessarily be all gloomy; the elderly in many cases are very resilient. My research and conversations have also suggested some paths to the future for individuals and for society as a whole. In yesterday’s Zoom meeting with The Aging Rebels here are some comments made: “I was frightened about living alone, but I see that I can be alone and be happy.” Another, “I am learning how to filter out the unimportant and realize I am self-reliant.” 

Since the disease has intruded on so many aspects of our lives, we see the beginnings of improved outreach to the isolated elderly – food delivery to their homes, volunteers who check in regularly by phone, and enhancing their ability to communicate through tele-medicine and other Internet technology. For example, volunteers for the Senior Friendship Centers call all their participants regularly to check on them, offer suggestions about free food delivery, and answer their questions. In addition, many individuals have pro-actively learned to reduce stress and loneliness by incorporating activities such as meditation, yoga and exercise into their routines.  

Where we live can make a big difference in how we will cope in this new environment. One of the members of the Aging Rebels is grateful for choosing to reside in a community that both takes strong steps to keep them safe, and offers opportunities for human interaction even if the residents cannot sit closer than six feet apart. Similarly, Marcia and her companion moved into one apartment because they believed that togetherness would help them confront the impact of the virus. My guess is that it will become more common for the healthy aging to search for residential options – whether in a retirement community, a neighborhood or a building – that offer psychological support from neighbors, as well as social services. On the other hand, we can only hope that, for those who are seriously ill, this episode will bring improvements to conditions in nursing homes and other residences where the elderly have suffered disproportionately from the virus and its effects. 

Finally, the virus has compelled many of us to see this as a pause – a ‘moratorium’ period in which we ponder what we want from the future. Michael Karp suggests that ‘if we use this time wisely and thoughtfully, to raise and try to answer fundamental questions about the future, we may all come out of this as better people and custodians of our planet.’

No one can predict exactly how much the assumptions, routines, roles and relationships of our daily lives will change in the coming months and years. But this enforced opportunity for individuals to pause, reflect and even to plan, may ultimately amount to a collective focus that will eventually reveal how each of us wants to, and will, live that future. Let us hope that someday we will once again be able to keep our dance cards full.

Nancy K. Schlossberg, Professor Emerita, University of Maryland, author of Too Young to be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as you Age. American Psychological Association, 2017. 

References

Anderson, M.L., Goodman, J., Schlossberg, N.K. Counseling Adults in Transition: Linking Schlossberg’s Theory With Practice in a Diverse World. (2012). New York: Springer Publishing Co.

Andrew SteptoeAparna ShankarPanayotes Demakakos, and Jane Wardle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 15, April 9, 2013 

John Bowlby.  Loss: Sadness and Depression. Basic Books, 1980.

Bradley, J.M. & Cafferty, T.P. (2001) Attachment among older adults: Current issues and directions for future research. Attachment & Human Development, 3(2), 220-221 2001 

Darling, L. Is There a Cure For Loneliness, The Magazine AARP, p. 54, December 2019, January 2020. Home Instead Senior UK Press Release, April 30, 2020.) 

Schlossberg, N. K. (2017). Too Young to be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age. Washington, D.C. American Psychological Association, p. 46. 

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