Coronavirus Is Making Baby Boomers Realize We’re Not Invincible
Almost everyone at midlife encounters what the psychologist Susan Whitbourne calls a “threshold experience,” an instance where you first realize, I’m not that young anymore. Whitbourne, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says the coronavirus pandemic is triggering that realization for millions of baby boomers.
“This is a bad threshold,” she says. “It’s one of the worst ones in modern history.”
The psychologist Jerrold Lee Shapiro, a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, agrees that this is a psychologically tumultuous time for many older adults newly grappling with their vulnerability, going so far as to call it an “existential crisis.”
“If people are coming from that feeling of invincibility to the sense of I might be one of those millions of people who could be severely debilitated or die from this,” he says, “my goodness, that’s really a lot to confront.”
India Van Voorhees, 69, is confronting it right now. Despite her chronic Stage 1 lung cancer, Van Voorhees has always felt optimistic about her health, even after the virus began its spread. “My attitude was: ‘If I get it, I’ll suffer, and then I’ll get over it,’” she says. But when she learned there are fewer than 100,000 ICU beds in the country, fear began to set in. She envisioned a doctor having to decide between her and a younger patient: “If there aren’t enough beds and equipment to treat me? I’m a goner.”
That mental shift is something that editor David Harry Stewart is seeing in real time, many times over. Five years ago, Stewart launched Ageist, a media company and community for people over 50. Now, he’s watching Ageist users rethink what it means to be the age they are.
“We look great. We’re in wonderful shape. We’re starting businesses,” says Stewart, 61, who I previously interviewed for my book Life Reimagined, about thriving in midlife. “The general delusion people our age have is that we’re 40. Do we need to be thinking as if we’re 70?”
Stewart can deadlift 310 pounds, but has an autoimmune disorder that’s putting him on edge about how coronavirus may affect him. Since the virus made its way to the U.S., he says, he has adopted a strict regimen. He washes his hands every 30 minutes, wipes down door handles, and scrubs everything that comes into the house with soapy water or diluted Clorox.
But as the complaints from boomers’ children suggest, others in his age group seem untroubled. A few days ago, Stewart says, he was chatting (from several feet away) with an acquaintance, and asked how she was doing. “She said, ‘I’m going to yoga. I’ve been chanting a lot. I meditate. I’m going to be fine.’ I thought, ‘Okay. I know you feel that mindset is a good thing. But a better thing is: Disinfect your hands.”
Stewart says many of his peers don’t seem to realize that the behaviors that have sustained their generation — healthy diet, exercise, meditation, positive thinking — are no match for this virus. The “longevity hacks,” such as ketogenic diets, high-intensity training, and intermittent fasting, are Lilliputians trying to constrain Gulliver. “A positive attitude may be helpful,” Stewart says. “But if you go out there and get a big dose of corona in the face, I’m not quite sure how much an effect that’s going to have.”
And while age is more than a number, says the psychiatrist Ronnie Stangler, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Washington, it’s also, well, a number. “I may feel young,” she says, “but the cells in my lungs and the cells in my blood don’t care how I feel.”
No matter how well you eat, how many miles you can run, or how much weight you can lift, the lungs of a 60-year-old are not the lungs of a 30-year-old.