Whether we think we needed it or not, the arrival of COVID-19 has given us plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of solitude. Writing for NPR (National Public Radion in the U.S.), Colin Dwyer looks at the findings of recent research on the topic of solitude.
Dwyer offers four findings from this research:
- Solitude is in the mind of the beholder.
- We may crave time alone the way we crave time with others.
- Don’t expect an epiphany.
- Solitude can be a communal exercise.
Author Jane Badrock has noticed a fictional marketing niche that she aims to fill: older adult detectives, particular female ones.
“Think of the opportunities! Imagine, even the real-life unsolved crimes that may have happened because nobody suspected the little old lady.”
Brain scientists haven’t been able to find major differences between women’s and men’s brains, despite over a century of searching
I couldn’t resist including this article. The search to explain gender differences by tying them to differences in the anatomy and/or function of various parts of the brain began at the dawn of the discipline of psychology. Here Ari Berkowitz, Presidential Professor of Biology and Director of the Cellular & Behavioral Neurobiology Graduate Program at the University of Oklahoma, concludes:
So it’s not realistic to assume any human brain sex differences are innate. They may also result from learning. People live in a fundamentally gendered culture, in which parenting, education, expectations and opportunities differ based on sex, from birth through adulthood, which inevitably changes the brain.
In other words, gender differences are not biological—that is, inborn—traits but rather social constructs, normative behaviors defined and passed down by societies to tell people how they should live, think, and feel.
Lorraine Berry makes “An earnest attempt at an essential library.”
She writes, “I aimed to include those novels rooted in a writer’s emotional honesty in telling true stories about the human condition. Light on classics, the list is weighted toward books published in the past 119 years.”
She adds that we should hurry up and look at the list—before she tweaks it yet again.
How about you? What books would you add or delete from Berry’s list? Remember, you must limit the list to 40 books.
This CNN article looks at test programs that have provided robotic pets to older adults to help ease the loneliness exacerbated by the isolating restrictions of COVID-19. These programs have been conducted in Alabama, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania.
So far the results look promising, but, at least in Alabama, evaluation of the program will continue over the next year.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
“Solitude is a skill. You can get better at it with practice.”
Sigal Samuel urges us to lean into being alone.
Many factors have conspired to make us bad at solitude. They’re mostly not our fault. As Jenny Odell lays out in her book How to Do Nothing, we live in a culture where sociability and constant connectivity are rewarded, and where choosing to be by yourself marks you out as a loser, crazy, possibly immoral.
This article goes deeper than I expected. Samuel offers several ingredients for making the most of solitude:
- “First, there’s the idea that to succeed at solitude, you have to accept that you’re being “thrown upon yourself” — to confront your reality rather than opting for distraction.
- “Another key ingredient to successful solitude, psychologists have found, is having a clear sense of purpose.”
- Some people who have adapted to living in isolation “emphasize the importance of routines — the little daily rituals that anchor us in time and give shape to a day.”
- “Many artists insist that isolation is necessary for creative work.”
- “Most world religions, even if they’re ambivalent about solitude as a long-term path, acknowledge that it’s useful for fostering spiritual insight.”
But Samuel also acknowledges that sudden isolation, such as that forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic, can also have risks. There’s a link to a guide to developing “distress tolerance skills” developed by psychologists for the Centre for Clinical Interventions, supported by the Australian government’s department of health.
NPR reports on several new studies that suggest the huge increase in loneliness social scientists expected to accompany the mandatory isolation necessary to prevent spread of the COVID-19 virus hasn’t materialized.
Some researchers wonder if the many ways communities have found to band together while socially distanced—such as porch chats, Zoom dinners, neighborhood dancing—have contributed to the lower-than-expected rate of loneliness. Still, they add, conditions are ripe for anxiety and depression, which we should be on the lookout for in both ourselves and others.
My husband and I are both over 70, and we’ve been terrified by how hard this virus is hitting older adults. We have minimized our trips out as much as possible, always wear masks when outside the house, and stay six feet away from others when we do go to the grocery store. So I was surprised to see this news story about older people shocking their children by not following recommended health guidelines.
Various factors are contributing to this generational divide. Older people in the United States are statistically more likely than younger generations to listen to conservative media and to politicians who have played down the dangers of the virus, and some may have followed their lead. Others may be well aware of the risks but have weighed them against the mental and physical benefits of maintaining exercise and social routines.
Whatever the reasons, the dynamic can leave middle-aged people, many of whom may already be worried about their adult children going to protests or beach gatherings, feeling that they must also parent their parents.
This experience of sinking into emotional quicksand while bingeing on doom-and-gloom news is so common that there’s now internet lingo for it: “doomscrolling.” Exacerbating this behavior, shelter-in-place orders leave us with little to do other than to look at our screens; by some measures, our screen time has jumped at least 50 percent.
Read explanations of how to use these approaches to lift yourself out of the doom and gloom:
- Create a plan to control your time
- Practice meditation
- Connect with others
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront many bioethical questions, such as, when resources are limited, which lives should be saved and which sacrificed? Maren Tova Linett, author of Literary Bioethics, argues that fiction, with its ability to present imagined worlds, offers the chance to explore such concerns: “Fiction has the virtue of presenting vividly imagined worlds in which certain values hold sway, casting new light onto those values. And the more plausible we find these imagined worlds, the more thoroughly we can evaluate the justice of those values.”
Literary Bioethics considers novels such as The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
I’ve been hearing a lot about systemic racism in the U.S., the fact that racism is built so basically into our culture that even the best-intentioned white folks don’t notice it. This article from Atlas Obscura startlingly illustrates that point.
“The idyllic ideal of modern suburbia in the United States was born in 1947 with the creation of Levittown, a large housing development in Long Island, New York.” Furthermore:
A clause in the standard lease for the first Levitt houses baldly stated that the homes could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” Government policies at the time, such as those of the Federal Housing Administration, supported such racist practices, blocking Black Americans and other people of color from the new suburbs and homeownership.
I’ll just leave that fact right there.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
After more than half a century advocating for women’s rights and other civil liberties, Gloria Steinem has become one of the most famous feminists of all time. While you might know her best as the face of the women’s liberation movement or the founder of Ms. magazine, the Ohio-born activist has quite a few other accomplishments to her name.
Those of us who grew up along with Gloria Steinem probably know that, as a young woman, she served a stint as a Playboy Bunny. Here are some more tantalizing facts the feminist icon, including her discovery, through Little Women, that “women could be a whole human world.”
But writer Ellen Gutoskey saved the best for last:
“15. GLORIA STEINEM HAS NO PLANS TO RETIRE.”
“After I was injured in a school shooting, I found unexpected comfort in binging grisly TV shows and podcasts. And I’m not the only one.”
Taylor Schumann reports that, after being wounded in a school shooting, she began obsessively watching true crime TV shows because “at their root was reality: real people and real pain, just like my own.”
Later, discussing true crime shows and podcasts, she was comforted by the realization that she wasn’t the only person fascinated by them. And those discussions often offered her the opportunity to share bits of her own experience, with the result that “I felt more known.” Finally, “I found an unexpected community of other victims of violent crime who also experienced a sort of mending of themselves through the true crime genre.”
Jon Friedman writes for Esquire about Neil Young’s song “Ohio,” written 50 years ago this summer “in the aftermath of the massacre of four students on the campus of Kent State University, on May 4, 1970.”
This moment in history has special poignancy for me because my graduation from Boston University, scheduled for late May, was canceled immediately after the killings. We were in the middle of the final exam period, and all exams not yet taken were called off. We were also made to leave the dormitories within the next few days.
And that experience made me sympathize with all the students who missed out on their high school, college, or graduate school graduations this year, the spring and summer of COVID-19.
And I wonder what kind of music will emerge from our current experience. Will there be anything as lastingly significant as Neil Young’s song “Ohio”?
“Today, of course,” writes Friedman, “Young is defined by his lifelong activism, but in early 1970, before the release of ‘Ohio,’ there was no real indication of the protest singer he was about to become.”
Darn, I miss baseball. Everything at all baseball related reminds me how much.
Academician Irina Dumitrescu riffs on the notion of solitude. The main bases for her musings are the new book The Art of Solitude by Stephen Batchelor and the curious isolation the COVID-19 virus has forced upon us:
Zoom and Skype and Instagram live beam faces and voices into our rooms, but we miss touch and scent of skin, the warmth of another’s body, the easy energy of a conversation in place. We are neither with one another nor alone with ourselves, neither imprisoned nor truly free.
As the virus surges, I hope all of you are keeping yourselves healthy, both physically and mentally. Take time to engage in whatever activities bring you comfort and joy. And do not feel the need to apologize for self-care.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Not too long ago my husband and I watched a series on either Netflix or Amazon Prime (I can’t remember which) that featured actor Stuart Margolin in some episodes. I immediately recognized the name but where I knew it from. My husband supplied the answer: Stuart Margolin played Rockford’s former cellmate and occasional colleague on the TV show The Rockford Files.
The very next day I came across this article in praise of that show, and I immediately remembered how much I loved it. The article emphasizes how the show marked a new direction in television fare, but of course I liked it for one particular reason: James Garner.
If you feel at all nostalgic about The Rockford Files, this article will take you on a pleasant journey down memory lane.
I have absolutely no background in art appreciation or art history. But, like a lot of other people, I find Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) mesmerizing. In this article for The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl writes, “Once you’ve seen a Hopper, it stays seen.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic as background, Schjeldahl explains:
The visual bard of American solitude—not loneliness, a maudlin projection—speaks to our isolated states these days with fortuitous poignance. But he is always doing that, pandemic or no pandemic. Aloneness is his great theme, symbolizing America: insecure selfhoods in a country that is only abstractly a nation.
Iddo Landau, Ph.D., addresses what he says is a common belief in what Victor Frankl called “The Existential Vacuum,” or the feeling that life is meaningless. Landau says that, despite the prevalence of this belief, there is no scientific evidence to support it.
Landau continues, “The empirical research on the topic suggests that the phenomenon may be less common than some take it to be.” He then examines some of the research, much of which suggests that more people believe that their life has purpose than those who believe it doesn’t. And, he adds, “the large percentage in these and other samples of the people who take their lives to be meaningful shouldn’t lead us to ignore those who feel that their lives are not meaningful; they should be taken very seriously.”
This short overview article does not look at how people of different ages feel about their meaning of life. For example, anyone who has raised children is familiar with the concept of “teenage angst,” something that adolescents often wrestle with as they approach adulthood and work to decide how to spend the rest of their lives. Also, the question of life’s meaning is something that many older adults ponder.
So while this article deals with a question that’s interesting to consider, I’d like to see a much deeper analysis of the issue.
AARP reports that the federal government unveiled on June 4th a new web site that tracks coronavirus cases and deaths in specific nursing homes. According to this article, “The information remains incomplete and does not include assisted living facilities, which are not regulated by the federal government.”
I suggest you take a look at the article to find out what certain terms mean and what data the new web site includes and excludes.
I recently came across the Retrospect site, with the subtitle “think back, share forward.” It bills itself as “the place for baby boomers to tell their stories.”
Each week Retrospect sends out an email with that week’s prompts. Members can then go to the Retrospect web site and write their own stories around the prompt.
Apparently you can read stories on the site without signing in, but to write stories you’ll have to register. As far as I can tell (without actually registering), registration is free.
I haven’t completely vetted this site, but the set-up seems like a good idea to me. Much research over many years has concluded that life writing can benefit us emotionally and even physically. Even without those physical and emotional benefits, just reading other peoples’ stories is thought-provoking.
If you’re interested in this opportunity, please check out the site completely to see it meets your needs without any undue requirements. And if you do decide to participate here, please come back and give us your reactions in the comments.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
“A former director of the Harlem Writers Guild, she published her first novel when she was 55, and her first mystery, featuring a stylish female ex-cop turned sleuth, when she was 64.”
Jane E. Brody has been a major health writer for the New York Times for quite a while. In honor of her recent birthday, the Times reprinted some of her past, but still relevant, articles.
In this piece from March 2018 Brody examines two books by authors who share their wisdom on aging learned from years of working and talking with older people: The End of Old Age by Dr. Marc E. Agronin and Happiness Is a Choice You Make by John Leland.
I keep seeing articles about what the “new normal” will look like as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. T.A. Frank writes in Vanity Fair that “staying safe while getting back to ordinary life is a matter of people making good decisions based on science and common sense.”
Read some of his suggestions for modifying our post-pandemic behavior here.
I remember watching the black-and-white TV show Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr, with my grandmother. I got goosebumps when I read here that HBO is releasing a updating the series, starting June 21, with Matthew Rhys from The Americans in the lead role.
“. . . while Burr’s take on the character saw him as a defense attorney helping the wrongly accused, Rhys is set to play a younger take on the character before he entered a courtroom.”
‘What will the years coming look like?’: Coronavirus has thrown a wrench into Washingtonians’ retirement plans
This article from the Seattle Times has a local emphasis, but much of the discussion here, from Washingtonians over age 50, applies to many Americans in this age group.
“The first message: Don’t panic.”
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Heather Houser explains that infowhelm is “the term I use to describe the phenomenon of being overwhelmed by a constant flow of sometimes conflicting information.”
Further, “Infowhelm goes beyond simple overload—it’s characterized by the crucial complications that data are uncertain and evolving (testing has been flawed and even the six-foot rule is up for debate), they’re contested by those in power (President Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro), and the stakes of taking action are enormous.”
Since infowhelm involves not just the information itself but our ability “to filter and assess it,” Houser offers some advice for improving our data literacy.
If you’re one of the people having trouble concentrating long enough to read effectively, take heart: You’re not alone. Here Constance Grady interviews Oliver J. Robinson, a neuroscientist and psychologist based at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.
Tom Wooldridge—an associate professor and chair in the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, a psychoanalyst, and a board-certified, licensed psychologist—discusses alexithymia, the inability to describe one’s inner life. “It refers to a cluster of features including difficulty identifying and describing subjective feelings, a limited fantasy life, and a style of thinking that focuses on external stimuli as opposed to internal states.”
While this condition might sound like what we’re all experiencing now during the coronavirus pandemic, Wooldridge explains that it is something we all experience in our everyday lives to some degree. “Developing this capacity – the psychic elaboration of emotion – is a life-long task with which we must all engage. It is a cornerstone of psychological self-knowledge.”
Learning to describe our emotions with “images and words, and subjecting them to ongoing reflection” is a key to continued mental growth, Wooldridge concludes.
Molly Creeden writes in the Los Angeles Times, “the unusual circumstances of being cloistered at home have proved a welcome change of pace, if not wholly enjoyable. And while no one is happy about the reasons we find ourselves in this abbreviated style of living, those well-suited to it are thriving.”
Read some of the explanations by people who appreciate the changes the current situation has brought to their lives and who hope to carry over some of those changes when the isolation restrictions ease.
Sweden did not set out to kill thousands of its older citizens. Nor did any country as COVID-19 swept across the globe. But Sweden’s unique and closely watched approach to the pandemic has spotlighted the tragic toll the coronavirus has taken on the elderly. It has cast a harsh light on the value that societies have placed on the freedoms of some to the expense of others.
Robert Bazell, adjunct professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale, argues that “The COVID-19 death rate in Sweden has exposed worldwide bias against the elderly.”
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
For some time now scientists have known that sleep helps solidify learning by providing our brains the opportunity to review the day’s events and transfer things into long-term memories. Finally, CNN reports, scientists have a start on understanding how this process works: “tiny microelectrodes planted inside the brains of two people show just how the brain’s neurons fire during sleep to ‘replay’ our short-term memories in order to move them into more permanent storage.”
Results of the study, carried out by BrainGate, an academic research consortium composed of Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford University, and Case Western Reserve University, were reported in the journal Cell Reports.
It’s important to note that the number of tests reported on is extremely small and that much more research is necessary.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the world will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but my speculations are mostly social and political. I know absolutely nothing about economics beyond balancing my checkbook, which is why I took particular notice of this article from Five Books.
As we deal with the economic fallout of coronavirus, what lessons can economic theory and economic history teach us as we navigate the months ahead? Ricardo Reis, professor of economics at the London School of Economics—and consultant to both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve—recommends four books and one article to help us think through the economic challenges posed by Covid-19.
Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson writes:
In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.
“The virus is rewriting our imaginations,” he writes, because it has awakened our realization of the significance of our place in history. “We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters.”
“Oscar-winning actor Judi Dench has become the oldest person ever to feature on the cover of British Vogue at the age of 85.”
Be sure to click on the link to the article to see the glorious cover.
A good reason to help your older relatives learn to communicate online is to take advantage of the opportunity to share and record family-history stories. This article has some useful tips on how to record conversations, what prompts to assemble, how to prepare the people you plan to talk with, and how to develop open-ended questions that will stimulate conversation.
This advice applies to both digital and in-person conversations.
Laura Newberry reports in the Los Angeles Times on “how little some people care about the well-being of older adults, who make up roughly 80% of those who die from COVID-19 complications.”
The information here is not limited to the Los Angeles area. Much of it pertains to those of us in the higher-risk demographic (people age 60 and over) no matter where we live.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Corinne Whiting reports in The Seattle Times how nature can help soothe us through these uncertain times. Although her emphasis is local, much of what she has to say can probably be extrapolated for people in other areas.
“We as Americans have a tendency to think outside of our cities when it comes to nature and health,” Wolf said. The research, however, points to nearby, everyday nature — from our backyards to neighborhood streetscapes — being equally important, if not more so. [Kathleen Wolf is a research social scientist at the University of Washington’s College of the Environment.]
For those who can’t get outside or who don’t have access to appropriate natural areas:
Wolf suggests taking advantage of “vicarious or virtual nature,” whether via wildlife documentaries or daily livestreams offered by zoos, aquariums and nature reserves around the globe.
Even in good times, the humanistic academy is mocked as a wheel turning nothing; in an emergency, when doctors, delivery personnel, and other essential workers are scrambling to keep society intact, no one has patience with the wheel’s demand to keep turning. What is the role of Aristotle, or the person who studies him, in a crisis?
For those of us whose daily existence centers around mental rather than physical activity, Agnes Callard laments that the current crisis has made it impossible to capitalize on the time now available for mental processes that we value so highly.
“Perhaps the special danger of a crisis that leaves a lot of time for thinking is that one will try to learn too many lessons while inside it. Crises are, at least while they are happening, not educational opportunities. They are events that befall us, that harm us. They target everything about us, including our faculty for learning.”
When I first visited my doctor for a routine annual physical after turning 65, the nurse said, “Since you’re now on Medicare, I have to ask some questions to assess your cognitive acuity. What day is it?”
And I just laughed. “Retirement means never having to know what day it is,” I told her as my mind scrambled for the answer. And it’s true. When you don’t have to get out and about for work or other daily obligations, one day becomes pretty much like the next. I think I was finally able to tell her that today was Tuesday, but only because I knew that Tuesday was the only day on my weekly calendar with an appointment on it.
The situation is similar now that most of us are all shuttered inside. Even people who are working from home and/or home-schooling their kids are apparently, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, becoming unstuck in time.
Among the stranger consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is how, by unmooring the daily lives of tens of millions of people, it has made time itself feel distorted. Psychologists say the sensation is a result of losing social anchors, chronic stress and anxiety, and drastic changes to normal routines.
“People over 60 are more vulnerable to COVID-19 than anyone else. They are also vulnerable to loneliness, especially when they live alone. By forcing us all into social isolation, one public health crisis—the coronavirus—is shining a bright light on another, loneliness. It will be some time before we have a vaccine for the coronavirus. But the antidote to loneliness is accessible to all of us: friendship.”
Lydia Denworth, a contributing editor for Scientific American, discusses how social isolation can be especially hard on older adults, the very people most vulnerable to the physical effects of COVID-19.
Patrick McNamara, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, discusses how dreams tend to change focus across the human life span and, further, across historical epochs.
“Older adults tend to dream more about creative works, legacies and enduring concerns, while the dreams of dying people are filled with numbers of supernatural agents, other-worldly settings and images of reunions with a loved one who has died.”
Pacific NW Magazine, a weekend feature of The Seattle Times, takes “a fresh look at Earth Day through the eyes of current and former Seattle Times artists” on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Over on my literature blog I wrote about how the current health emergency has made it difficult for me to read and write: Reading & Blogging in the Time of COVID-19.
Many people are writing similar pieces about how the situation is affecting them. Here, from my local newspaper, is an article about what a couple of experts have to say about how different people handle stress differently, along with some advice on how to care for ourselves as well as others.
Just as people experience stress differently, they also find comfort differently. One activity often recommended is gardening. Here, in The New Yorker, Charlotte Mendelson explains how gardening is helping her cope in these unsettled times:
What all gardeners know, and the rest of you may discover, is that if you have even the smallest space, a pot on a window ledge, a front step, a wee yard, there is no balm to the soul greater than planting seeds. Watching them begin to sprout, checking far too often as the firm yet fragile stems break free of the soil, the dry seed-case caps, is a joy so strong you can feel it in your knuckles.
And for those who live in small spaces, here are some indoor gardening suggestions. The one I found most intriguing was a link to an article about how to create a vertical garden (not that I’m actually going to do it, mind you, but the thought piques my imagination).
Maybe you prefer birdwatching to gardening. (I know I do.) According to this article, “A 2017 study from the University of Exeter found that being able to see birds around your home may reduce levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.”
The article itself is short, but it contains links to several related resources.
This is a portal to several articles by writers for The New Yorker. There’s a wide variety of topics here, so you’re bound to find something to interest or inform you.
I learned about this site from Ron Charles’s weekly Book Club newsletter for the Washington Post. Here’s what Charles has to say about this site:
I’ve been alarmed by some of the “reassuring” rhetoric around the Covid-19 crisis. The worst example came last month from Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who sounded like he might push grandparents into a pit if it meant the rest of us could start shopping sooner. . . . In response, McSweeney’s has started publishing a series of short statements called “A Force Outside Myself: Citizens Over 60 Speak” . . . Their pieces are haunting, sobering, sometimes witty, always achingly sincere.
“The writer on growing old, life in quarantine, and the sadness of seeing her city shut down.”
Here’s an interview with Fran Lebowitz, “one of New York’s most distinctive personalities.”
At age 69, she’s in the high-risk category of people over 60. When asked how she feels about being in this category, she replied:
One thing I’ve absolutely noticed about myself, and which should be true as you get older: it’s not that you want to die, but you are less attached to life. You’re less panicked. I’m not very panicked by this, and I have friends who are. They’re
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown