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Adjusting Daily Routines During the Pandemic

Retirees, cut off from activities and friends, are finding creative ways to cope


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

Teresa Elwert usually is out and about every day, doing volunteer work, exercising and meeting up with friends. Four times a week, the 68-year-old leads a group of other retirees in her New York City neighborhood on what she calls “brisk walks” through Central Park, followed by coffee and conversation at a nearby Whole Foods café.

As part of her work with the nonprofit Bloomingdale Aging in Place neighborhood group, she also visits older adults in their apartments who need help with their computers and other electronic equipment, and she organizes other volunteers to do the same.

With the pandemic, of course, Elwert’s daily schedule has changed considerably. An avid hiker who hiked to the Mt. Everest base camp in 2016, she still walks six or more miles most days — but by herself. Her home visits to older adults have been replaced with phone calls.

“When I retired seven years ago, I had three goals: to be physically active, socially active and keep learning new things,” Elwert said. “The virus is interfering with my first two goals.”

Risks of Social Isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing 52 million Americans who are 60 and older to adjust to solitary, secluded lifestyles. The vast majority live independently and are more active than prior older generations. Now they’ve been warned to stay away from family and friends and to halt activities many say keep them physically and mentally fit.

The churches and synagogues, community centers, libraries and other public spaces where they congregate are closed. Their book clubs, adult education courses, yoga lessons, golf and tennis games, volunteer work and other activities have been canceled.

“Being told to stay home all the time isn’t normal living” and can trigger loneliness.

 

“Being told to stay home all the time isn’t normal living” and can trigger loneliness, said Dr. Linda Fried, dean of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.

Stick to a New, Daily Schedule

Fried advises people of all ages, and especially older adults who are no longer employed, to stick to a new, daily schedule. This should include exercising at home or taking a walk at a certain time each day and doing at-home projects that provide pleasure and a sense of productivity.

“If you don’t have structure, your mind drifts and then you’re at risk of getting depressed,” she said.

Equally beneficial to relieving loneliness is helping others. Even people who are staying home most of the time can arrange deliveries of groceries for frail neighbors or phone them regularly. To stay connected with others, “this is the time to learn to use Skype, FaceTime and other apps — or get someone to teach you,” said Fried.

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Coping in Creative Ways

Teresa Elwert is now holding weekly Zoom meetings with members of her walking group. On her solo walks, she sometimes teleconferences with a few walkers, who share what they’re seeing on their respective routes.

“It’s fun and easier to do than trying to have an in-person conversation while staying six feet apart,” she said.

Richard Siegel, who splits his time between New York City and Maine, worried he’d get sluggish and bored when his boxing and Pilates classes and his bridge games were canceled in mid-March. An architect in his early 70s who’s still working part-time, he typically plays bridge three or four times a week with people who’ve become close friends.

Now he’s getting used to playing bridge online, which he used to reject as “too impersonal.” And instead of boxing and Pilates lessons, he’s begun taking long walks with his wife.

“I realize my Pilates teacher has it a lot worse than I do, because she doesn’t have any income coming in,” Siegel said.

Tea on a Park Bench, Sitting Apart

Barbara Batcheler agrees that as a retiree, she’s facing less financial pressure than younger people who’ve lost jobs, plus she has had practice living through difficult times.

The 77-year-old former university administrator was born in England during World War II and experienced food rationing as a child.

“Dealing with less is in my genes,” Batcheler said.

She misses going to her gym to swim, her book club and a bird-watching group in New York City, where she lives alone, but is finding new ways to stay connected.

Batcheler and her two adult children and grandchildren, who live in Michigan and Washington, D.C., launched  a “lockdown lending library.” They shared photos of their bookshelves, chose books they wanted to read and are mailing them to one another.

Batcheler loves to cook for friends but since she now can’t invite them over for meals, she has dropped off homemade soup to one friend and had tea with another in a  park near her apartment.

“My friend brought a Thermos of tea, and I brought a loaf of bread.  We sat far apart on a park bench and could still visit and talk,” she said.

Carol Hymowitz
By Carol Hymowitz
Carol Hymowitz is a writer, editor and recognized expert on longevity and the retirement savings crisis, management trends and diversity in the workplace. She is co-author of A History of Women in America (Bantam Books) and a contributor to Getting Older; How We're Coping with the Gray Areas of Aging (Wiley e book). She is currently a visiting scholar at the Stanford Longevity Center.

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