Sage: How to help other people

and avoid guilt during pandemic

Dear Retirement Sage:


I am feeling guilty as I read all the news about Covid-19 and its countless victims. I live in a retirement community, a ‘bubble’ that has not been hit – yet, at least. This is going to sound selfish, but I feel fortunate to be retired. I have not lost a job; I have not lost a family member. Nor am I facing tuition payments, a mortgage or other onerous expenses that I would have had while my husband and I worked and raised our children. We now have a pension and Social Security and some savings, so we are shielded from dire financial catastrophe. Our extended family so far remains healthy, aside from the normal aches and pains. Is it reasonable to feel this way as other suffer?


                                                                              – Somber in Arizona


Dear Somber:


   This disease certainly puts our own situations in perspective, doesn’t it? Our normal creaks and squeaks, aches and pains, and daily crankiness and complaints – the things that make our spouses want to sign up for the first manned flight to Pluto – no longer seem so consequential. This is a good lesson not only during the pandemic, but for long afterward as well.

   You may well have a form of survivor’s guilt. A recent article in Psychology Today reported, “We are social creatures, a majority of us are naturally empathic and sympathetic towards others, and in times of crisis, we identify more strongly to not only those close to us but with those in our extended human family. This is rational guilt drawn from a healthy sensitivity to others … a guilt driven by an awareness of the unfairness of life that we can’t explain and can’t control.”

   Wow. Noodle that over during your next neighborhood barbecue once social distancing has ended and the virus has abated!

   The Sage applauds Somber in Arizona for your social conscience, and below will offer suggestions for you to get involved with fellow seniors during this pandemic. No doubt there are many millions more like you who are fortunate and who are examining their values and perhaps pushing a restart button in terms of personal priorities.

   And that is very healthy. David Brooks, a New York Times columnist who has studied human behavior in previous pandemics going back to a plague that struck Florence in 1348,

Quotes a Yale historian as saying that pandemics ‘hold up a mirror to society and force us to ask basic questions” about our mortality and about our responsibility to others.

   People throughout history have turned inward. They ignored victims during other pandemics and became cruel, even to the point of abandoning their own children. And in the end, many perhaps “didn’t like who they had become,” Brooks wrote.

   No doubt many of us saw such behavior in stores after Covid 19 first appeared. Many grocery clerks will tell you that they witnessed a repulsive side of human behavior – people clearing the shelves of disinfectants, toilet paper, soups and staples, elbowing others out of the way and leaving some empty-handed. This was minor in the scheme of history, but nonetheless it pointed up the natural human reaction of self-preservation, if not greed and predatory behavior. How many of us really need a 20 years’ worth of TP, peanut butter, paper towels and enough hamburger to feed the mid-Atlantic states?

   OK. Enough about the past. We can learn from it and enrich the lives of fellow older citizens who may not be as lucky as we are, especially considering that the majority of Covid 19 fatalities are among those 65 and older. By demonstrating grace in offering comforts to others, we can turn guilt into positive action that we will find rewarding rather than focusing on ourselves.

   These suggestions come from multiple sources, including AARP, NBC News, and a University of Chicago sociologist, not to mention your ever-humble Sage:

   • Help someone get organized during this pandemic. Draw up a list of emergency contacts for him or her, including doctors, hospital, health-insurance company, family, friends and neighbors. Perhaps include your phone number as well. Add call information for local meal and grocery delivery services.

   • Reach out to those you know who live in virus hotspots and ask how they are doing. You might even reconnect with old friends (probably not the kid who got you in trouble by blaming you for leaving a limburger cheese sandwich in the nun’s desk drawer in third grade – for two weeks).

   • Support food banks and Meals-on-Wheels-type programs. They desperately need donations. Call and ask what you can do.

   • Ask a frail, homebound neighbor what you can pick up at the store when you go out, or use a shopping delivery service (your local supermarket can tell you how).

   • Order care packages to be delivered to people you know – food, toiletries, whatever they need – if you can’t do it in person. How about something as simple as their favorite snacks? Or an item related to a favorite activity, such as a mystery novel, a jigsaw puzzle, or a book of crossword puzzles or word searches. Or how about a humorous book by Dave Barry?

    • To avoid social isolation, help fellow seniors learn technology so that they can communicate via email and software like Facetime that enables video calls. If you can’t explain it, put the person in touch with your four-year-old grandkid. Make it a point to contact your friend every week and mark it down on your calendar. This person will embrace the kindness.

   • Send occasional letters and cards through the mail that may end up so appreciated that they are displayed with pride.

   • Donate blood if you can and if it’s safe to do so. Supplies have been low. Contact the Red Cross.

   • Keep in mind that many seniors are ‘vulnerable to seeing and believing misinformation about Covid-19 on the internet and their social media feeds’ … and ‘are less likely to follow public health recommendations to protect themselves and others from this virus,’ a professor at the University of Delaware warned. Make sure seniors are up to date with accurate information.

   • Ask local nursing homes and senior centers if they could use any kind of assistance. Some seniors have volunteered to talk to others on ‘friendship lines,’ chatting with those they don’t even know but making their day with good conversation.

   • Keep in mind that many people have died from this virus, alone at home or in a hospital, with no one to say goodbye. Tell your family and friends how much you love them while you still can. Avoid painful regrets down the road about things that you wish you’d said.

   • Let this be a reminder that you can do these things at any time, even without a pandemic.

   Here’s wishing that you and yours get through this tragedy intact – physically, mentally and emotionally.

   Yours Truly,
   The Sage