A GOOD AGE: What I learned about older people and those who help them from COVID


Instead of ‘How old are you?’ let’s ask ‘How many years do you have?

Sue Scheible

| The Patriot Ledger

QUINCY — A year ago Wednesday the tone and content of this column changed overnight when Gov. Charlie Baker issued a state of emergency order as the coronavirus began to sweep through Massachusetts.

On March 10, 2020, the column headline, “Students restore a ‘Crazy Cup,” was about students at South Shore VoTech in Hanover who were restoring a tea cup from the popular 1960s ride at Paragon Park in Hull. On the same page, a Quincy news story reported that the Coffee Break Cafe, opened in 1996, was closing but not because of any virus. Downtown redevelopment was at work.

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A week later, on March 17, the headline ‘A tough generation does its best amid outbreak’ reflected the drastic change. “For people so accustomed to doing what they have been told for healthy aging — keeping active, exercising, socializing, avoiding long periods alone and corrosive isolation — these are trying times even with the best resolve and optimism.”

Karen Johnston, director of Weymouth Elder Services spoke of her admiration for her elders. “The seniors have been very responsible with this,” she said after all senior center programs were suspended and only essential services continued.

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A week later brought more sweeping changes at local nursing homes. On March 24, “Dogs at the window, bingo in the hallways” described the rapid response and ingenuity: “With family visits barred by the coronavirus precautions, nursing homes find creative ways to reconnect elders and loved ones.” Greg Derr’s Ledger photos showed children, grandchildren and dogs visiting loved ones at the Queen Anne nursing home in Hingham from outside their windows. Residents played bingo from their doorways into the hallways.

As March 10, 2021, arrives, I ask what has the upheaval shown us about our oldest generation and COVID”s impact on all our lives?

I have been consistently impressed at the dedication of local senior center staffs and volunteers, the unity of council on aging directors and the courage, grace and thoughtfulness of so many seniors who have been feeling scared, lonely, cut off from those they love. What skills they are showing w to hold on to optimism.

I turned to Thomas F. Clasby Jr., director of Quincy Elder Services, one of the first to emphasize his worries about the isolation and loneliness many elders would experience.

The staff at the Quincy Council on Aging quickly began telephone wellness checks, reassuring the seniors they were there for them and that medical transportation would continue. Other centers have done the same, directors working almost nonstop, and a regional network has shared best practices.

On a broader statewide and national scale, Clasby said, “On the whole this has been disturbing to me. In some ways, it has brought to light how many in society look at elders as inconvenient.

“I understand that at the very beginning it was a great mystery, but when you look at the nursing home deaths, with people already isolated, to put people we knew were infected into nursing homes is really appalling.”

He has a friend from the Czech Republic who told him that when they see a person who is older, they never say ‘How old are you?’ They say, ‘How many years do you have?’ Because every year is a gift. And the person will answer ‘I have 85 years.’ “

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Clasby has heard comics making jokes that ridicule old people and getting older. And he thinks, “Who has lived through more crises than those who have lived the longest? They have experienced the Great Depression, the World Wars, the turbulent 60s, and now this. And instead of looking on these elders as a wealth of wisdom, we seem to want to send them away.”

The oldest generation is one to still write old-fashioned letters. A pandemic has not taken that away. “Dear Friends,” 85-year-old Jane Kaatrud wrote in January to the transportation program at Quincy Elder Services. “My heart is full of gratitude for your faithful service. Each trip is a delight. Shared conversation and helpful hands. With groceries and ascent and descent to and from the vehicle. With fond appreciation Jane Kaatrud.”

She is 85, looks after her son Joel who is 55, is in need of low-come assisted living housing and uses the Quincy’s Elder Ride.

“I’ll keep on trucking,” she said.

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Sue Scheible, The Patriot Ledger

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