“Is this living?” she asks me. And then again, the words that are hardest to hear, “I just want to die.” This from a greatly beloved cousin of mine, someone I have known my entire life. She is now 93, widowed for 12 years, living comfortably in an assisted living community in upstate New York, relatively healthy for her age.
Maybe you recognize your grandmother in her? At almost every turn, if you turn around among today’s retirees, chronically ill or elderly, there is this strain of despair. Bits of it were always there, particularly among the “old-old” as over-80s tend to be categorized. But add the isolation of quarantine, and questioning the value of living gets to be a pandemic in and of itself.
In my own independent/assisted-living building there is a 96-year-old retired college professor, a nationally recognized poet and writer, longtime radical activist who now shares my cousin’s despair. Her son comes every other week from his home a two-hour drive away, but more and more she feels it’s only out of a sense of filial duty and must be burdensome to him. Because both her sight and her hearing are diminished she can no longer write — or even read without a struggle. If others try visiting, to read to her or perhaps listen to favorite music to create a small break in the monotony, “it just feels artificial,” she says. “Everything feels artificial. I am just existing here, a prisoner in my own apartment.”
There are potential solutions. My cousin’s family — children and grandchildren who are scattered across the U.S. but remain closely bonded — have regular Saturday night Zoom sessions. She often needs technical help from the staff, as all things digital tend to bewilder the old-old, but these events are the highlight of her week. “Sometimes they are hard, though,” she tells me. “Everyone says ‘how are you doing?’ or ‘what’s your week been like?’ and what am I supposed to say?”
These are women (and occasional men) whose lives were made meaningful by trips to the symphony, or a lecture, or even to the grocery store. A surprising number of them, including my cousin, were activists; they are the ones now writing letters and postcards to representatives — or to voters. But they are also the ones with diminishing sight or arthritic fingers, and up pops one more reason not to want to live any more.
So how to find meaning, some reason for living? For many there are ‘daily inspiration’ type services by the zillion, available to send messages by phone, text or email as frequently as anyone might ask. I’ve talked with several dozen people while putting together this essay, men and women both, who say their daily messages from religious sites, astrologers or you name it brighten their days and often bring meaning in these isolated/isolating times. (Some of them are re-reading the Torah, the Bible or the Quran.) Unfortunately, neither my cousin nor my friend in this building would be a candidate for inspirational messaging of any sort.
But for almost anyone, telling her story can turn into a reason for living — and more. As the memorable song in “Hamilton” goes: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Telling it yourself gives you editorial control, if nothing else; if you’re old and isolated it might give you much more. There’s a site called StoryWorth on which one can sign up one’s grandmother for a fee. Every week, StoryWorth sends a question like “When did you buy your first car?” or “What was your childhood home like,” things of that sort. Grandma reminisces about the question, perhaps attaches photos of the old home place, and hits Reply. At the end of the year, StoryWorth (this is not a paid plug; there may be similar sites but I couldn’t find them) puts it all together in a book for the family.
I bought my cousin a cassette recorder. Yes, they’re still on the market. I’d initially thought to get her a digital voice recorder (those who have iPhones need nothing more) but her son suggested that anything digital might be too bewildering. Along with the recorder I sent a converter device, into which her son can place the cassettes and morph them into thumb drives or something of the sort which can easily be mailed to children and grandchildren. Because I’ve known her all my life, I was also able to send a list of more specific questions — How did you meet Joe? Where did you go on your honeymoon? What do you remember most fondly about that first apartment (the one with all the roaches)? What were the parts you and Joe sang in the Carolina Players production of “Of Thee I Sing”?
Will it help? Who knows. Her voice has indeed sounded a little more upbeat and she says she’s looking forward to the recorder’s arrival. Those of us who still love life, despite its chaos and quarantine and bitter inequities, generally wish that joy for others. But the population of lonely, isolated seniors grows every day; some of them simply wanting to die. This space welcomes any and all thoughts on what to do if it is your grandmother.