What It's Like to Be in Multiple High-Risk Categories for COVID-19

At 61, with a history of asthma, a heart attack, and pneumonia, I couldn't be more vulnerable to coronavirus.

The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, does not recognize sex, race, religion, or politics—but it does, however, discriminate against age. Being over 50 puts people in what is known as a "high-risk category" for coronavirus complications, as does having immune deficiency, circulatory, diabetic, cardiac, and respiratory conditions. At 61, having had asthma since I was four, experiencing a heart attack at 55, and overcoming pneumonia around this time two years ago, I'm smack dab in several of those cautionary categories.

Even while acknowledging that reality, my initial reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic was that I was not going to fall into catastrophic thinking. But that lasted, oh, a few minutes and then the what if's in my mind grabbed hold and gripped tightly.

What if I got so sick that I needed to be in the hospital as I had when I felt like I was drowning when I had pneumonia? What if my family or friends were diagnosed and became severely ill or died? What if I couldn't work and support myself?

I took a deep breath—grateful that I could—and called a friend who is what I call my "sanity check." She too is a therapist like me and one of the first things she asked me was, "What are your fears?" Once we name them, we can address them. After I shared those what-ifs, she told me about a conversation she had with her students at a university where she teaches. Of course, they were curious about how to face this unprecedented situation. Her answer was reassuring.

"Situation: Extremely fluid

Actions to take: Wear your inner tube, keep your head above water, help each other stay afloat. So then we can talk about the real-life equivalents and strategies of inner tubes, heads above water, keeping each other afloat."

She was right—we don't know more than we know. And one thing we do know is that we are all in this together. The medical consensus is that in order to "flatten the curve," it is essential that we self-quarantine, whether or not we have the virus. By doing so, we are giving the medical teams that are working even more rigorous hours than normal a fighting chance to save lives.

Nearly three weeks ago, before the governor of Pennsylvania gave the order for all but essential businesses to close and for all residents to stay home for non-essential reasons (like going to the supermarket, pharmacy, or getting medical treatment), I did so voluntarily, given my high-risk situation. I made sure that I was well stocked, but didn't fall prey to panic buying. I had plenty of toilet paper already, as well as the basics I needed. Even before the crisis hit, cleaning supplies were already in my kitchen and bathroom, hand sanitizer in my backpack and purse. I had a can of Lysol that I use to spray my shoes and backpack when I came back into the house. So in that respect, little has changed.

But my work life shifted overnight. I am a psychotherapist working in a group practice. And though we are considered an "essential business," we switched to a telehealth platform to "see" our clients, many of whom have, understandably, become more anxious and depressed. Our offices are closed to them until the shutdown is lifted, but our virtual appointments are working well—the next best thing to being there in person.

When I'm not talking to clients about the virus, I'm writing articles on the impact of the virus (I've written about half a dozen thus far). But I'm also napping, working out in my living room, watching comedy shows on television, watching live-streamed concerts, watching inspiring videos, and reading encouraging articles.

Other than stopping by the office to do paperwork, I remain in solitude, but I am not isolated. I'm constantly reaching out to loved ones, to both offer support and to receive it.

The term "social distancing" is a misnomer; physical distancing is more like it. It is even more crucial than ever not to socially separate. When touch is not an option, unless you are living with family or friends (two legged or four legged), being in touch via electronic means or telephone can be a lifesaver. When I feel pangs of loneliness, I call family or friends; some I haven't spoken to for years. Many live alone as well and appreciate the outreach as I have when they've contacted me. I spoke with one friend with whom I haven't had contact in two years, as she reminded me. And with social media, I feel as if I can have conversations with the world.

closeup of hands of older woman using smart phone

The most challenging aspect for me is that I have not held my now two-month-old grandson, Dean, for nearly three weeks. He and my son, Adam, and daughter-in-law, Lauren, live 20 minutes away, but I have been attempting to convince myself that I am a long-distance grandmother (to no avail). Up until the crisis hit, I was there two to three times a week to help with his care, as were his other grandparents.

When Lauren was pregnant with Dean, Adam told me "he is going to be the center of your universe." I laughed and told him that his child would be the center of his. How wrong I was. This baby is a part of my heart and soul and we have an unbreakable bond. I miss him terribly and eagerly await the day when I can zoom over there and hold him. Of course, Adam and Lauren have sent pictures and videos every day so I can see Dean that way. It's nowhere near like the real thing, but it will have to do for now. I have been sending him videos where I sing to him or read stories. Truth be told, I am doing it as much for me as for him.

When I am tempted to feel sorry for myself, which I do every day, I think about my friends who have elderly parents they can't visit. Two have mothers on the other side of the country, one has parents she would visit weekly who live about an hour away. Again, technology will have to suffice. We remind each other that there will come a time, hopefully soon, when we will be reunited with our family members.

Whether you're hunkered down alone or with others, here are some resources to help you deal with the current situation. Because, high risk or not, we're all being challenged like we never have before.

Resources for children to help them comprehend what is happening.

Suicide prevention hotline to assist with coping with depression.

12 step meetings online for those in recovery.

Domestic violence hotline for those in dangerous situations.

Most importantly, remember that this too shall pass and that there will be a time, again hopefully not too far in the future, where we will embark on an adventure that will be a "new normal," having learned some valuable lessons in the process about the value of our relationships, the treasure of our health, and the resilience that we can exhibit.

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