What are we learning from the lockdown?

Memento Mori

Remembering to honor the dead.  The picture is from my annual Memorial Day visit on Monday – accompanied by my brothers – to Fort Logan National Cemetery. I did a search and discovered there are more than 122,000 persons (based on 2014 information) buried at the cemetery.  What struck me as I looked out at all the granite headstones was the number of dead resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.: 101,634 (as of 14:53 MDT on May 27, 2020). It was a very moving visual experience to consider the number of those who have died from COVID-19 as we looked at the many waves in the sea of white headstones. All those victims of the pandemic were people who others cared about, with family and survivors who now mourn them.

Here are a few things I have learned from the lockdown so far (as it is lifting partially now in Littleton, CO):

1. In times of a global pandemic, our focus on rights naturally shifts in favor of considering our relationships with others.

Humans are an intensely social species.  Social distancing has been challenging and life-changing for nearly everyone.  It seemed hardest on the most vulnerable though – including those skilled nursing facility residents who may have had some prior experience with quarantining or “lockdown” as many refer to it – but never for this long a period of time. The pandemic struck hardest at persons of color and those who occupy lower socioeconomic status.  What implications does this have for how we take care of “our” public health?  This remains to be seen.  

2. Staying in touch with loved ones can take many creative forms.

The term “social distancing” overshadowed the last three months of our existence, but it was really “physical distancing” that was and still is a means of curbing community spread.  I’m a subscriber to the Greater Good Magazine and a recent podcast “How to connect when you must stay apart” had some great questions to explore that were far from the ordinary type of conversation we tend to have when we see someone (in person) on a regular basis.

3. Finding a work-life balance is not simply a matter of physical location.

Many of us have been unable to go to our offices or places of work during this pandemic. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs entirely.  None of us knows what the future holds – that much is certain! Many of us are grateful to have been able to work from home – even if we were not particularly happy about it!

4. Change is the only constant.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it best: you cannot step in the same river twice.  Many of us want to “go back” to the pre-pandemic status quo ante.  This is a strange nostalgia, to pine for something because it was routine, not because it brought a happy association.  When will Covid-19 “go away?”  We do not know!

Does change turn back on itself? This brings me to another topic about our short attention span when it comes to history lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic should be considered in some perspective since it’s not the only global pandemic.

5. What?! Covid-19 isn’t the only global pandemic?

A little over a year ago, I hired a professional genealogist to assist me in tracking down records from my mother’s side of the family.  I did not have much information because my mother’s mother died very young. I discover that my mother was the orphaned daughter of an orphaned daughter.  What does this have to do with today’s pandemic, you wonder? It is perhaps a way for me to consider COVID 19 in perspective! I certainly do not wish to minimize the huge death toll of the present pandemic and its interrupted grieving, the structural economic dislocation, or our mental health stresses due to all this and the physical distancing with which we are all struggling.

The message is simple: the oldest, deadliest  and most pernicious human plague of all human history – tuberculosis – remains a global pandemic. How quickly we forget!

The SARS outbreak is the public health event to which most of us could – earlier in the pandemic –  compare Covid-19 – even if it was a bit of a flash in the pan, er panic,  some seventeen years ago. You can read the CDC’s fact sheet about SARS here.  Human coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960’s and COVID-19 (named for its “debut” in 2019) is part of that family.

Tuberculosis, on the other hand, is not caused by a virus at all but rather a bacillus. The bacillus was first identified by Robert Koch in 1882 – a time when TB killed one out of every seven people in the US and Europe. Genetic studies suggest that mycobacterium tuberculosis has been a disease afflicting humans for at least 15,000 years. Human history contains many references to “the white plague,” consumption as well as its other names.  Once the bacterium was identified, however, it would be nearly six decades before streptomycin was discovered by Selman Waksman and others who worked to identify several drug treatment candidates in the 1940s. But TB persists to this day because it has never been “conquered” – to adopt the warfare lingo of the present COVID-19 crises playing out across the globe.  TB has remained a “global pandemic” as identified by the WHO.  The disease has learned from the arsenal of drugs which have been deployed against it over the last sixty-plus years and has responded by evolving drug resistant strains, which of course remain communicable to others.

6. TB also killed nurses and caregivers.

My grandmother Marian died of pulmonary TB just shy of her thirty-first birthday. She was a nurse who likely contracted the disease while she worked as a “private duty nurse,” caring for people in their homes.  My mother was the eldest of the five children who survived her – destined for a local orphanage. After locating her death certificate, I learned that her mother (my great-grandmother) had also left five children behind at her death from pulmonary TB in May of 1918.  My grandmother was twelve at the time of her mother’s death and her father died five months later, a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic.

How quickly we have forgotten our problematic relationship with our microbial nemeses!  It seems that many Americans have chosen to believe the false narrative – based undoubtedly on our misplaced confidence in our human abilities – since we have told ourselves that we are otherwise “in control” of diseases, this COVID-19 must somehow be man-made!  The fact remains that we are not “in control” of our planet and the living beings with whom we are in community – and we never have been. Life is fragile and we must take care of each other in order to ensure our collective survival.

©2020 Barbara E. Cashman, www.DenverElderLaw.org

You’re only old once or. . . mindful aging as spiritual practice?!

Swan at Lough Gur

Swan at Lough Gur

In case you’re wondering, yes, I have a copy of the Dr. Seuss book “You’re Only Old Once!” in my office waiting room. What, you say your kids have never read that one to you?  In case you’re wondering, yes Dr. S was OLD when he wrote it, and it was released in 1986 on Mr. Geisel’s 82nd birthday.  It is a fanciful “day in the life” of an elder American.  I wouldn’t say it has the same level of incisive social commentary as my Dr. S. faves including The Sneetches (about the stupidity of racial discrimination), The Zax (about the wisdom of integrative negotiation) or The Butter Battle Book (about the craziness of MAD – mutually assured destruction, that Cold War relic we somehow managed to survive). But that might just be because I haven’t read this book to my kids at least fifty times.  (Maybe they can read it to me in a couple more years, if I haven’t misplaced it by then.) My other Seuss favorites are numerous  – oh, I don’t have the space for a discussion of Yertle the Turtle or Horton Hears a Who. Maybe in another blog post though.

If you’d rather listen to someone else reading the book (with the pictures of course) check out this youtube video of it. Okay, back to the aging and April Fool’s theme . . .  I am always [as a baby-boomer] struggling with coining a term for the special form of forgetfulness, cognitive compromise, dementia, whatever[!]  that affects those of us who are elder law attorneys of a certain age.  I think I remember writing a blog post once about dementia being contagious.. . .  So here goes.  A colleague and I were recently discussing our experiences with mental health challenges.  I thought this topic would make a great blog post topic, particularly for April Fool’s.  Here are a few suggested additions I propose for the DSM-VII:

Attention Surplus Disorder (ASD) –  sometimes mistaken for OCD and often referred to as “nervous Nellie” syndrome, this occurs when a person’s quality of life is threatened when their sleep is interrupted by the looming prospect of overdue library books, and their vision is impaired by hyperfocus on the physical meaning of the dark circles under the eyes or formation of crow’s feet on the face of their partner.

De-mentation – this condition is practically reaching epic proportions as nearly all Americans have “smart phones” which means that as our phones become progressively smarter with the latest technology, we, the operators of our smart phones, get dumber all the time.  For example, when was the last time you actually remembered someone’s mobile phone number (without having to look it up on your smart phone)????

Displasia – pronounced “dis-place-yeah.”  This behavior is characteristic of the opposing spectrum of the obsessive-compulsive disorder, basically it is evidenced by a person spending exponentially more than the average forty-five minutes per day looking for a particular paper on their desk or some place in their office.

Paranoid Cybercosis —  is a 20th century and present day phenomenon, the disorder based on a vaguely formed conspiracy theory that yes, just like in all the great sci-fi movies of the last millennium,  the machines are out to get us.

Reduplicative paramnesia – the belief, delusional at least 50% of the time, that a location or place has been duplicated and exists in another place at the same time.  For older adults, this can sometimes involve time travel that is otherwise known as “déjà vieux” and sometimes confused with “déjà vu.”

Stendhal syndrome (I remember him from my French class in college) is a psychosomatic illness  that can strike when a person is exposed to a large amount of beautiful things or breathtaking scenery in a short time.  If we have spent our entire lives merely surviving and tolerating our existence, beauty can be quite upsetting!

Trichotillomania – this is exceedingly rare in those of us of a certain age, because as my grandmother once explained to me, when you get old, there isn’t as great a need to shave anymore.  This one is the urge to pull one’s hair out, basically from any area of the body that still manages to grow hair.

So, you’re maybe wondering . . .  what’s this link between humor and spirituality?  I haven’t read this book, and I didn’t know the Jesuits had a lock on this, but in 1989 James Martin, SJ, published Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.  On a similar note, here’s a link to a PBS Frontline interview with Rev. Jennifer Brower, a Unitarian minister. Her premise is that the aging process affects spiritual life as a result of the developmental process of aging.  I discovered there is even a Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging! Who knew?

So let’s hear it for April Fool’s Day and the glorious and pervasive myth of the fool, Loki, trickster, clown, and all those other wise fool names, mythological and archetypal.  Here’s to Coyote’s medicine, may it lighten our hearts, increase our wisdom and bring us clarity of sight.

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org