Genevieve remembers the looks on the faces of terrified mothers and children as they lined up to get the first-ever polio vaccine at the height of an outbreak in 1955. As a nurse during the polio epidemic, Genevieve saw the way panic could bring out the best and worst in people. So she wasn't fazed when the novel coronavirus recently started spreading around the globe, although at 85, she's in the age group most vulnerable to COVID-19. Like the previous health crises she's lived through, Genevieve is taking the coronavirus outbreak in stride: "The damage that's been inflicted on the human spirit during this is something we just really need to be mindful about."
Based on initial data, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 20% of deaths from coronavirus in that country as of Feb. 11 occurred in patients older than 80 years old. In Washington, which has the most coronavirus deaths in the United States to date, the epicenter of the outbreak has been a nursing home where 19 virus-related deaths have been reported. Experts aren't sure why seniors face elevated risk from the virus, but they believe since immune systems weaken with age, older people and those with certain chronic conditions may not fight it off as easily as younger folks.
Bustle asked nine women, ranging in age from their mid-70s to mid-90s, how they're thinking about a viral disease that the World Health Organization is now describing as pandemic. Some are calmed by the fact that this isn't their first brush with a major outbreak; travel was restricted and quarantines were enforced during peak polio outbreaks, and nona- and octogenarians who were children during that time still remember the panic those epidemics caused. Their decades of lived experience has taught these women that being mindful and staying positive are the most productive responses to a problem like coronavirus spread. So if you've been refreshing Twitter every five minutes for the latest updates, heed their advice: Get off your phone and go bake a cake.
Jenny, 76, Virginia
I'm not an alarmist. I'm pretty calm about things like this. My motto is worry about it when it happens and you can do something about it. Maybe it's not a good thing, but that's who I am. So I really didn't worry about it. My kids accuse me of being too positive.
Then I began to hear about cases in the United States, and that's closer to home. I heard about a case in Maryland, and that's where my grandchildren live. So I was a little more interested. But honestly, it's not a hot topic of conversation. We might mention it in passing. One of my friends went on a cruise, and she's now stranded on a ship off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. So she sent me a text yesterday saying she might get off the ship. But with friends in the same age group, we really don't talk about it much.
This is my theory: When you're at this point in life, you know that your expectancy is not a long time. And so I don't dwell on that. You've got to go out and have some fun, whatever that means for you. Maybe I am being too rosy about it, but I don't feel like it's going to help me or anybody else for me to worry about it. I will deal with it when it comes. We've got to keep a positive attitude. We've been through other things before, maybe not as serious as this, but we do survive.
Pat, 77, Oregon
At our age we've been through SARS, swine flu, and some really bad influenza years, so coronavirus wasn't particularly alarming. Panic is never justified. Common sense is. From my medical background, I am still amazed at how concerned people are about coronavirus, but they weren't concerned enough about their health to get a flu vaccine. They weren't really doing what they could do to protect their health before.
I think how you deal with this depends a lot on what your personality is. I was just talking to one of my friends, who just retired from being a physician, and he said they're being a little more careful, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. I'm not going to change my life because of it. Then there are other friends I have who just say they're really afraid.
If you trust what you're hearing, they're now differentiating a little bit on the symptoms you might get. But all I'm really hearing is, you're going to get nothing, or you're going to get something mild, or you're going to get the respiratory stuff that may kill you. The best thing I think people can do with what information is out there now is to use their common sense to assess their risks based on their age and their general health.
"I'm not worried so much about dying. I'm worried about being sick. It's very unpleasant and isolating."
Millie, 80, California
When I was a little girl, only 4 years old, I got caught up in the polio epidemic, and that has had repercussions on me for the rest of my life. I was very, very fortunate that I came out of just fine, but you have to pay attention when you're getting warnings of an epidemic or pandemic. One lady said to me, "People make too much of germs!" I don't think so.
With the polio epidemic, I was too young to know anything. I know my mother tried very hard to keep me away from the public. Then we had the Ebola thing. I think that was handled much more effectively than coronavirus is being handled. People don't really know what to do, and it doesn't seem like they have a handle on it yet. The whole thing is very scary because the government really does not have a good enough safety net. The federal government has egg on its face. They took away funding from the CDC, etc., and that shouldn't be the situation. We are supposedly not very well prepared compared to other countries.
My husband is very concerned about me catching something and bringing it home. As a result, I've limited any activities, but I enjoy being with people. So it's a time to do things that maybe you've put off doing, projects that you never had the time to do. Another thing is, it's an opportunity to think creatively. I haven't met with my book club, so I suggested to the hostess that we try using Zoom so that I could be included in the discussion. We tried that yesterday and it worked out great.
Carolyn, 82, California
I absolutely have changed plans. My partner is going to be 90 next month, and we had planned a birthday party for him. We decided to cancel a party, which made me very unhappy. I lost a substantial amount of money, but at our age we're lucky to be alive anyway, so we should probably work on keeping it that way.
I haven't worried too much about going out and doing the normal things during the day. But I noticed today when I had to pick up a prescription, I needed to use the restroom at the drug store so I could wash my hands. I'm not a germophobe at all. I never went around using hand wipes and what not, but boy, today I was really careful and did all the things that you're supposed to do.
I don't know that 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage is so good. I'm sure it's alarming for a lot of people. It's a threat, but it shouldn't be overwhelming. You shouldn't frighten your children to death. It makes everything very tentative and that's a concern. But you just have to go along, do the best you can, and see what happens.
"Bake a cake. Bake some cookies. Even if you don't eat them, give them to somebody. You don't have to be glued to the television."
Genevieve, 85, Ohio
I was very actively involved in the polio epidemic. I worked at children's hospital during that time, and we had respirators that we had to learn how to manually operate in case the electricity went down. We weren't allowed to take our kids swimming or anything else because of polio.
Then they came out with the vaccine. They said, "Next year, you won't have all these polio cases." I was part of the hospital team distributing the vaccine. We, the nurses, lined up the tables, and at that time families were larger and would have to bring in their whole crew to get the vaccine. It was amazing the fear that people had. But sure enough, the next year, we were way down on cases of polio. Sure enough, the next year, we didn't have respirators. It was exciting. It was surprising. It was terrifying.
I think maybe it's a learned response over the years, but my approach when these things happen is "what can we do?" I don't want to hear that this person is horrible. I don't want to hear that this person is bad. That's all negative, and there's so much of it. We should be taking the position of "what do we do to help?" I think our health care workers are on the blame side so much right now. It makes it real tough for them to go to work knowing that they're at risk, their patients are at risk, and it's "all their fault."
Be supportive of those doing the job. Don't just tell us we're wrong. Help us find solutions and ways we can work together to protect your loved ones. Talk to officials and hold them accountable. Be mindful of what you're touching, but also of how you're talking to people. Try to make it as easy on everybody as possible. Make it easy on people going through it. These things have a way of playing out, and we'll get through it.
Ronnie, 86, California
I was maybe 10 or 11 when I went to summer camp and was quarantined because of the polio epidemic. Our parents couldn't visit us for three weeks. I was so upset about that. We weren't allowed to see anybody, and nobody could visit. It was my first experience away from home and I didn't like it. But I know I wasn't panicked.
I still don't feel panicked, but I am trying to be proactive and take precautionary steps to minimize the risk to me. I've changed my lifestyle, and it's not pleasant. I'm not worried so much about dying. I'm worried about being sick. It's very unpleasant and isolating.
The response has not gone as well as I would have hoped. Things should have been considered earlier. I think the government should step in and protect vulnerable populations and do more. They should play a definitive role here and not leave it just up to each little group to decide for itself. And it must be very difficult for the media to sort out the information because we are getting a lot of information that I think is not terribly accurate.
I wasn't panicked about getting polio. People should be careful and look at what the situation is, and not panic, but also not go over the edge the other way and ignore it.
"I was very, very fortunate that I came out of the polio epidemic fine, but you have to pay attention when you're getting warnings. One lady said to me, 'People make too much of germs!' I don't think so."
Hope, 90, California
I was born in a time where there were no vaccinations. People lived within their best means, and there was no money to even go to the doctor. Right now, I think there's too much, and I think that promotes fear. It's constantly on television, on the radio, or wherever the heck you are. They're constantly telling you the same information over and over again. It's a society that's not thinking, in a way, of progress. But that's what we live in, and that's why I'm not going to worry. Worry is not going to help any situation. I don't worry anymore. I'm a doer.
Bake a cake. Bake some cookies. Even if you don't eat them, give them to somebody. Get into more activities with your hands, situations where you're helping yourself do something positive with your time. Just concentrate, whatever it is, focus on that particular thing and your mind, body, and spirit will stand grounded. You don't have to be glued to the television.
Darlene, 96, Oregon
I just try to keep my life on an even keel. I try not to get out of shape or really concerned because what will be, will be. I don't think it's good for you to get upset, physically or mentally. Attitude has everything to do with our health. Good attitude, good food, and good rest, those are the things I try to keep uppermost.
Physically and mentally, sitting at home and moping about something isn't going to help anything and it's sure not going to help me. I volunteer at the senior center every day, I'm there and I think it's good for me. We're just being very careful.
The government should help if they can, but a lot of it is our own attitude. I feel very sorry for the country when it's in this turmoil, but I guess that's the way it is. It all goes back to my faith and attitude. I take my burden to the Lord and leave it there.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here.