My old friend Leo and I rendezvoused for coffee last week, which is no small matter these days. The pandemic, of course, had shuttered our favorite lunch spot and a series of massive protests following the death of George Floyd essentially locked down our Minneapolis neighborhoods for the better part of 10 days. Even after the smoke cleared, I wasn’t completely convinced that driving across town to Leo’s apartment was prudent — or even possible.
He was insistent, though, assuring me that the streets were open and we could maintain a safe distance while catching up at the picnic table in his backyard. “It’s good for me to get out of the house,” he said. “It does me good to see my friends.”
The three months since we’d last met had not been kind to Leo. He met me at the front door of the building, mask slightly askew over his gray, wispy goatee, and I couldn’t help thinking he’d lost some of the weight he’d worked so hard to acquire last winter. His eyes suggested this was not a proper topic for conversation.
“How are you doing?” I ventured as we shuffled along the sidewalk toward the coffee shop, a couple of blocks away.
“I’m OK,” he replied softly, without conviction. “You’re walking too fast.”
Several minutes of silent shuffling ensued. “I forgot to wish you a happy birthday,” I offered. “What is it now, 79?”
“Don’t make me any older than I am, Boss! It’s 78 . . . a year younger than Bob Dylan.”
We continued on, me trying in vain to lighten the mood, Leo pausing occasionally to catch his breath. “My knees are really giving me trouble,” he confessed.
“Have you seen the doctor?”
“Yes. My blood pressure is excellent: 118 over 70. I take pills for that,” he noted. “But I think I’ve been losing weight.”
“How much do you weigh?”
“I don’t know; I don’t own a scale.”
“Well, you do look a little thin,” I observed.
At the coffee shop, we waited outside for our order. Leo was subdued, distracted. He wouldn’t bite on normally reliable overtures: not politics, not baseball, not books. “How’s your anxiety level?” I wondered.
My friend is a notorious worrier, so this did not come as a surprise. Under even normal circumstances, the poet, political commentator, and legendary raconteur is burdened with concerns — money, health, the Yankees’ bullpen. But his confession lingered in the background during our backyard chat and struck me again later while reading a piece in the New York Times reporting a rise in attempted suicides among pandemic-isolated elderly.
Louise Aronson, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that this spike in “failed suicides” is part of the collateral damage the coronavirus is causing across the country. COVID-19, she writes, has created “lives stripped of human contact, meaningful activity, purpose and hope that things will get better in a time frame that is relevant to people in the last decades or years of life.”
As a society, she explains, we’re facing “contradictory realities,” both of which are valid: “Our approach to pandemic containment works, but . . . [it] . . . is causing suffering, eroding physical and mental health, and increasing the deaths of old people.”
Much of Aronson’s argument is based on anecdotal evidence — conversations with colleagues, patients, and friends — but there’s recent research to reinforce her claims. Results of a study published last week in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggest that the isolation required to contain the pandemic triggers anxiety, depression, and trauma among the senior set.
Plenty of other research has found similar associations, of course, but the team at Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa noted that the link was particularly pronounced in study participants who reported feeling older than they really were. “The way older adults perceive old age and their own aging may be more important to their coping and well-being than their chronological age,” explained study coauthor Amit Shrira, PhD, a professor of gerontology at Bar-Ilan University.
It’s never been more clear to me that Leo is really feeling his age these days, but I’ve also watched the years drop away sometimes when we’re sitting across the table from each other and trading quips about our favorite flawed politicians, comparing notes on Sinclair Lewis, or debating the relative greatness of Babe Ruth versus Ty Cobb. He’s at his best in public places, foisting his fractured Italian on young baristas, pleading with waiters for a properly prepared order of Brussels sprouts, or hobnobbing with longshot presidential candidates.
It may be awhile before he’s able to do any of that again, but I trust that his vast network of friends will help him muddle through. Even as he walks with me to my car after our abbreviated chat, his phone rings. It’s a young novelist he’s been mentoring, Leo tells me. I can see that he’s perking up. “Come around to the front,” he tells him. “I’ll meet you at the door.”