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Pandemic is giving baby boomers an acute sense of their mortality

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. >> Elizabeth Hubbart was booked for a cruise that followed the path of Lewis and Clark’s expedition in the Pacific Northwest. Joel Demski was set to watch and cheer his grandson graduating from the Naval Academy. James Kelly planned a trip to Scotland to scatter his father’s ashes in the Clyde River near Glasgow.

They are all older than 60. And like millions of others, they now face the painful realization that their plans, their hopes, their bucket-list items, were not simply deferred but in many cases denied, thanks to the coronavirus.

The global pandemic has left them wondering about the time they have left, and how to spend those moments when movement is severely limited. Instead of taking in the Seven Wonders of the World or making family memories, many are worried about the mundane, like whether it’s safe to grocery shop or even go outdoors.

Guilt, anger and frustration seep in, with all this precious time lost.

“One less year is one less trip,” said 72-year-old Bob Busch, an avid traveler from Sarasota, Fla., who canceled a 35-day camping trip with his wife. They are healthy this year, but what about in the future, after the pandemic has passed? “How many times can you hook up the trailer and head west?”

Demski, who lives in Vero Beach, Fla., was crestfallen when the Naval Academy canceled its graduation ceremonies. Instead of taking in the celebration in Annapolis with his grandson, he is left with concern as the young man ships out on his assignment. Plans to see another grandson graduate from UCLA in California have also been scrapped.

“I’m really just sad. It’s sadness for the whole country,” said Demski, who is a few months shy of his 80th birthday.

Mick Smyer, a psychology professor at Bucknell University who studies aging and the elderly, said the baby-boom generation is among the first to have additional years of vitality. This pandemic is hitting in the middle of their generation’s “developmental task,” which, as the American Psychological Association defines it, is “the fundamental physical, social, intellectual, and emotional achievements and abilities that must be acquired at each stage of life for normal and healthy development.”

In other words, boomers are feeling their mortality. As headlines blare about elders being more susceptible to dying of coronavirus, the healthy wonder: Will I be able to achieve, see and do everything I wanted in life?

“Boomers are thinking back about whether it has been a good life, and what was it all about,” Smyer said. “Now there are fewer options in the near term. The next two years are off the table, and how many good years are left?”

Kelly, a 63-year-old psychologist, also plays guitar and writes country rock and Americana songs. Lately, he’s been pondering his fate as he sits alone in his Atlanta home, thinking about when he’ll be able to bring his father’s ashes to his native Scotland.

“There’s not a lot more road in front of me,” he recently wrote in a song lyric.

At the same time, many acknowledge that their sacrifices are a product of privilege. Millions of people who are unemployed or working in essential yet low-wage jobs, don’t have that luxury now — or possibly ever.

“Some of my emotion, in all honesty, is guilt,” said Judy Forman, a 70-year-old from Flourtown, Pa. “We’re inconvenienced and we’re scared and we’re able to handle it. I try to help as much as I can. When I get a food order, I leave a huge tip. I give to food pantries.”

But the feeling that time is slipping away grates on her. She can’t travel to visit one of her daughters in California. She can’t even hug her three grandsons, who live across the street.

“It’s depression, loneliness. It’s boredom. Fear. Mostly fear.” She spends hours wiping down groceries, sanitizing doorknobs, thinking about how the future will be permanently different from now on.

“I do all this because I don’t want to die. So yeah, I’m feeling my mortality,” she said in a quiet voice.

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