Another COVID winter looms, but this moment of the pandemic feels hopeful. At age 87, I’m becoming reacquainted with the social life I had put on pause for many months. I’m going out to restaurants and museums, attending church and visiting my grandchildren who live in a neighboring town. I’ve always seen myself as a risk-taker and an optimist. But every day as I venture out, there’s a drumbeat in mind, a constant accompaniment: “Is this too risky for me?”
But if the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 is holding me back, there’s something even stronger drawing me out: the fear of not making the most of my remaining time, my “one wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver described it.
Life expectancy is just six years at my age. I want to spend my remaining time traveling, going to parties with friends and seeing all my far-flung grandchildren. I’m overjoyed that my retirement community has reopened. The dining room serves meals again, and I’ve joined both a dance and a tai chi class. I want to enjoy it all now. Time speeds up as you age. One 90-year-old friend put it this way: “What do I have to lose?” Those of us in our 80s and older are used to having death for a neighbor.
That’s not to say I’m living without fear. Though I’m confident that my triple shots of the vaccine will protect me, I’m not the same person I was before the pandemic. You feel vulnerable when you’re repeatedly reminded that people age 65 and older are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 and that the risk increases with age. I have some fear of crowds and large gatherings, and I’m reluctant to touch other people. The pain and suffering of the world are with me in a way they never were before, and I am now all too aware that what we take for granted as normal can change in an instant. But I am ready to move forward.
While COVID-19′s toll has been felt by everyone, pandemic living for people in our 80s was different. Yes, our risk of getting sick or dying from COVID was far greater. But nonetheless, I was able to keep my equanimity. People my age are resilient; after all, we were children during World War II.
Because the pandemic forced me and my peers to be so sheltered, daily life became, ironically, stress-free and, for some of us, boring. In March 2020 my boyfriend and I were told that we could not keep going back and forth between our two retirement-community apartments. We decided in a few minutes that he would move in with me. That hasty decision meant we lived pleasantly together through the long months of quarantine, reading books and playing word games. I wrote on my blog about aging, and I spoke to my psychotherapy clients over Zoom. Dinner was delivered to our door.
It was not the same for my adult children or many of my therapy clients, most of whom are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Their stress levels were extraordinary. Some took precautions to the extreme and disinfected their groceries. One of my clients, who was working a full-time job while managing her children’s schooling from home, told me she could “sleep for three years.”
Many of my younger clients seem very cautious about returning to more normal living. They tell me they are taking it slow. Often, it’s much slower than us elders. One client in her 40s told me that she’s “really looking forward to going to a restaurant and eating inside.” (I have already been to six or seven restaurants.) Until very recently, whenever we visited my son and daughter-in-law, they had us sit in chairs in their driveway. In my book clubs and writers’ group, it is some of the younger women who don’t want to meet in person.
Some adult children of 80-somethings have become bossy and even tyrannical in their concern over their parents’ safety. My friend was told by her two grown children that she could not leave her house under any circumstances. Her children shopped for her food and took her to the doctor. But she was starved for human companionship and became resentful. After many decades of living, we know with absolute certainty that relationships and enjoying time with the people we love are what matter the most in life.
Living into your 80s was not very common until relatively recently. But today, people my age are doing all sorts of things — hiking the Appalachian Trail, falling in love, writing poetry for the first time or helping to resettle Afghan refugees. Being in your 80s doesn’t mean you have to focus on survival. It is a time to enjoy a full life. And that’s what I’m ready to do.
Katharine Esty, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, a social psychologist and the author of “Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well and Finding Unexpected Happiness.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.