'I Feel Cheated' — How Boomers Are Dealing With the COVID-19 Curveball
The sense of lost time is magnified and can lead to feelings of frustration
“These are supposed to be the best years of my life,” says Matt, 64, an account manager for a telecom company in the suburbs of Denver (he prefers not to include his last name for this story). “I’ve been working like a dog for decades, got the kids through college, then saw my marriage fizzle. Now here I am, almost ready to retire, buy the convertible and start dating with a vengeance, and it’s all going up in smoke. Thanks a lot, COVID!”
This ire is going around as some boomers see their anticipated next stage of life evaporate as the pandemic continues to have the globe in its grip.
Of course, those lucky enough to escape the virus are very grateful for their good health. But as the days, weeks, months and now seasons of being on “pause” unfurl, many of those at midlife and later have had it up to here — and then some. Feelings of frustration and even anger can be hard to overcome if your “prime time” gets twisted like a pretzel.
A key factor: Time is of the essence.
“The pandemic has brought about a lot of disappointment and changes. Many boomers may feel cheated as expectations for these years and retirement have been upended,” says Caroline Atterton, lead therapist for the senior intensive outpatient program at San Diego’s Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Because the time ahead is limited, there may be a sense of urgency about the need ‘to get on with it’ and do those things that the pre-retirement years made it difficult to do. COVID-19 forces them into a sedentary lifestyle that contradicts those plans.”
This sense of now or never even has a name. “Around midlife, we experience what’s known as a ‘shift in time perspective,’ which means we begin to think about the time we have between this moment and the end of life. We start to realize that life is finite and that opportunities for a do-over are less likely,” explains Suzanne Degges-White, author and chair of the department of counseling and higher education at the College of Education, Northern Illinois University.
Loss of Family Time and Togetherness
At this age, a person’s hopes and plans may be treasured, whether they involve bucket-list travel or favorite Friday-night plans.
Flora Hanft, of Long Island, loved the life she had constructed pre-COVID-19, and misses activities like visits to local art galleries with her husband. As she says, “Now my days are all the same and — like my COVID outfits — shapeless.”
"I didn't see my new granddaughter until June, and then from a distance — no hugging, no kissing... I feel as if being a part of Kinsley's early life has been stolen from me."
For others, the most angst-ridden aspect to the pandemic is the loss of family time and togetherness as the generations grow.
“I was so excited for the arrival of my first grandchild,” says Dr. Sharon Wager, a geriatric and hospice physician who lives near Houston. “Kinsley was born on February 12, and maybe two weeks later, I had my first COVID-19 patient. I felt unsafe personally and worried about spreading the virus,” she says. “I didn’t see my new granddaughter until June, and then from a distance — no hugging, no kissing. I want to hold and snuggle my own sweet grandchild. I feel as if being a part of Kinsley’s early life has been stolen from me.”
Sampling an Isolated Life
While the coronavirus has deeply altered the way all people are living, it’s dealt some in the older generation an especially ferocious wallop.
If you’re over 50, you know the fear some younger people have of being within a mile of you. No one wants to be the “virus vector” that lands you in the hospital.
Many, many boomers have received pleading phone calls from their adult children begging them to stay inside 24/7, for fear that they may contract COVID-19 and have it prove fatal.
“I might as well be a hundred and four versus my real age of sixty four,” says Matt. “I almost never leave the house.”
Boomers have been contemplating the joys of continuing their illusion of agelessness, says Hanft. “The virus doesn’t just restrict their freedom and dreams, but it has codified ageism by calling out that boomers are in the high-risk group," she notes. "This sets back decades of baseball-cap-wearing age denial.”
Dealing With the Disappointment
The pandemic also amplifies another crummy aspect of growing older: The feeling that you're no longer in full command.
“Aging can bring a lot of new challenges that are not always expected,” says Atterton. “It can be difficult to cope when things do not always turn out as we had planned. This gives rise to feelings of not being in control, which is a source of anxiety.”
COVID-19 has intensified that exponentially: An invisible enemy is lurking out there and could strike at any moment. If that doesn’t rob people of their sense of agency, what would?
In this situation, denial is not your friend: Distracting yourself from the core issue won’t work (try as you may to watch every possible procedural drama on Netflix).
“It’s important to acknowledge and understand one’s feelings. It makes sense to feel hurt, sad, or cheated. The more one minimizes or pushes these emotions away, the more those unresolved feelings will impact how we feel about ourselves and how we behave,” explains Atterton. “We might think, ‘This is never going to end’ or ‘Things will never be as they once were,’ making it difficult to see other alternatives.”
So. Step One is to check in with yourself and accept that, yes, this is a really, really bad moment that’s derailing your plans. Sit with that and stop trying to push it away.
Try Three Little Words: 'Compared to What?'
Dr. Melvin Konner, the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of anthropology and of neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University, says that — next to “I love you” — the most important words we can use in this life are: “Compared to what?”
Yes, things may be terrible, but frame it in terms of what past generations have experienced; there is always hardship.
“Unlike our parents’ generation, we didn't live through the Great Depression, nor did we fight fascism to make sure democracy had a future. I have a friend, Tosia, who’s a Holocaust survivor now in her nineties,” Konner says. “I think what she saw — gunfire, bombs, fires, murder — is worse than staying inside due to coronavirus. Comparatively speaking, this pandemic is perhaps not as horrible. And this too shall end.”
If you’re close to someone who is bemoaning their “cheated” status, you can help them re-spin that viewpoint with this technique from Degges-White: “When someone is doing a ‘Yes, but’ response, such as, ‘Yes, I could use Zoom, but that’s not the same,’ they should be met with a ‘Yes, but’ that counters their perspective: ‘Yes, Zoom isn’t the same, but it’s a great way to hear and see your grandchildren,’ or “Yes, it’s lonely not being able to visit friends, but it’s important that you not only care for your own health, but that of others, too.”
Or try it on yourself as a self-talk trick.
Don’t Wallow in Frustration
Atterton suggests giving yourself some vigorous pep talks when cries of “Unfair!” well up inside you.
“We can practice self-compassion. Be gentle with yourself and cheer yourself on! Tell yourself, ‘I am taking good care of myself during this difficult time. Even though things are not right now, I am going to get through this,’” she says. “One can also treat the pandemic as an opportunity. Now is the time to learn something new — a new language or yoga — or read more.”
"I am glad I am connected to young people — they need us to give them perspective, to help them know that their lives will get back on track."
Atterton also advises people to stay social, even though we must physically distance.
“Phone or FaceTime with friends and family,” she advises. “Remember, loneliness and depression in older adults go hand-in-hand. Relationships are of paramount importance here. They lead to increased physical and emotional well-being and improved quality of life.”
Wager has found that while technology is no substitute for cradling her granddaughter, it does allow for easy contact. “My daughter and I use the Alexa and Tinybeans apps to keep close,” she says.
Digital tools are also a source of connection for Hanft, who misses her art gallery outings.
“I am wonkily drawn to virtual museum tours. The technology is getting better, and you can have a glass of wine during the tour — in my case, a Kir — rather than in the overpriced cafe afterwards,” she says. “And I love the virtual piano concerts our friend Michael Garin is doing via Facebook twice a week.”
Chin Up for the Younger Ones
Thinking of others will also help defuse the full brunt of COVID-19 frustration.
“As angry as I am about what COVID has done to my life,” says Matt, “I feel worse for my kids who are just launching their adult lives. I try to be very encouraging when talking to them. I had the freewheeling fun days that they are missing. It feels good to step out of my anger and support them.”
Konner echoes that as well.
Having just turned 74, he says he is glad he is still teaching: “Though there are things I would love to do in retirement, I am glad I am connected to young people — they need us to give them perspective, to help them know that their lives will get back on track. I like to remind them if they do the right thing now, one day soon they’ll be telling stories about surviving the pandemic of 2020.”
Don’t all of us look forward to those bragging rights?