Late at night a few weeks ago, I was about to turn off the light when I decided instead to grab my phone and catch up on the latest coronavirus news. This was in the early days of the pandemic — before shelter-in-place orders hit the United States, and before people were practicing social distancing on any large scale. I wasn’t overly worried, but I was paying attention, especially because older adults—those 60 and above—seemed to be the most at risk.
That meant me, as strange as it felt to acknowledge. At 60, I’ve never thought of myself as old. I don’t feel old. I feel great — except every winter when I am laid low with a respiratory infection that sends me to the doctor.
After a few minutes of scrolling, I turned off my phone and closed my eyes. I recalled what it was like to struggle for breath during last winter’s pneumonic weeks, and tried to imagine not being able to take a breath at all.
Then I switched off the light. I needed a good night’s sleep. In the morning I would be meeting some “older adult” friends for a 50-mile bike ride.
The Baby Boomers, those of us born between 1946 and 1964, have built a generational identity on ignoring limitations.
In our teens and twenties, we upended American culture: We camped out at Woodstock, protested war, demanded racial equality, dropped acid, explored spirituality, burned bras, distrusted authority, and created arguably the best music in a century. Now in our fifties, sixties, and seventies, we’re emerging from middle age as the healthiest and most active older generation in history.
“It’s a generation that is redefining old age and retirement,” says Marc Freedman, the author of How to Live Forever and founder of Encore.org, an online community and career network for people over 50. “It’s a generation that grew up at a time when youth culture was at its apex, and still feels vital.”
Now the generation that’s redefining old age is being redefined by a virus. We’re far from the only generation with members making questionable choices right now (looking at you, Gen Zers partying through spring break), but if you’ve spent any time on Twitter recently, you’ve likely seen the onslaught of bad press for baby boomers: In droves, people are tweeting about their boomer parents refusing to take the appropriate precautions against Covid-19. So widespread is the frustration, in fact, that it has spawned a new subgenre of service journalism: how to talk to boomers about their coronavirus risk.
This is a strange and uncomfortable time to be a boomer, and not only because of the grim coronavirus statistics. For many of us, myself included, it’s a reckoning.
Almost everyone at midlife encounters what the psychologist Susan Whitbourne calls a “threshold experience,” an instance where you first realize, I’m not that young anymore. Whitbourne, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says the coronavirus pandemic is triggering that realization for millions of baby boomers.
“This is a bad threshold,” she says. “It’s one of the worst ones in modern history.”
The psychologist Jerrold Lee Shapiro, a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, agrees that this is a psychologically tumultuous time for many older adults newly grappling with their vulnerability, going so far as to call it an “existential crisis.”
“If people are coming from that feeling of invincibility to the sense of I might be one of those millions of people who could be severely debilitated or die from this,” he says, “my goodness, that’s really a lot to confront.”
India Van Voorhees, 69, is confronting it right now. Despite her chronic Stage 1 lung cancer, Van Voorhees has always felt optimistic about her health, even after the virus began its spread. “My attitude was: ‘If I get it, I’ll suffer, and then I’ll get over it,’” she says. But when she learned there are fewer than 100,000 ICU beds in the country, fear began to set in. She envisioned a doctor having to decide between her and a younger patient: “If there aren’t enough beds and equipment to treat me? I’m a goner.”
That mental shift is something that editor David Harry Stewart is seeing in real time, many times over. Five years ago, Stewart launched Ageist, a media company and community for people over 50. Now, he’s watching Ageist users rethink what it means to be the age they are.
“We look great. We’re in wonderful shape. We’re starting businesses,” says Stewart, 61, who I previously interviewed for my book Life Reimagined, about thriving in midlife. “The general delusion people our age have is that we’re 40. Do we need to be thinking as if we’re 70?”
Stewart can deadlift 310 pounds, but has an autoimmune disorder that’s putting him on edge about how coronavirus may affect him. Since the virus made its way to the U.S., he says, he has adopted a strict regimen. He washes his hands every 30 minutes, wipes down door handles, and scrubs everything that comes into the house with soapy water or diluted Clorox.
But as the complaints from boomers’ children suggest, others in his age group seem untroubled. A few days ago, Stewart says, he was chatting (from several feet away) with an acquaintance, and asked how she was doing. “She said, ‘I’m going to yoga. I’ve been chanting a lot. I meditate. I’m going to be fine.’ I thought, ‘Okay. I know you feel that mindset is a good thing. But a better thing is: Disinfect your hands.”
Stewart says many of his peers don’t seem to realize that the behaviors that have sustained their generation — healthy diet, exercise, meditation, positive thinking — are no match for this virus. The “longevity hacks,” such as ketogenic diets, high-intensity training, and intermittent fasting, are Lilliputians trying to constrain Gulliver. “A positive attitude may be helpful,” Stewart says. “But if you go out there and get a big dose of corona in the face, I’m not quite sure how much an effect that’s going to have.”
And while age is more than a number, says the psychiatrist Ronnie Stangler, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Washington, it’s also, well, a number. “I may feel young,” she says, “but the cells in my lungs and the cells in my blood don’t care how I feel.”
No matter how well you eat, how many miles you can run, or how much weight you can lift, the lungs of a 60-year-old are not the lungs of a 30-year-old.
As the virus forces boomers to come to grips with that reality, it’s not only reframing how we see ourselves—it’s also revealing how younger generations view us.
And the sight isn’t always pleasant. The “OK boomer” meme that swept the culture months before the pandemic has, in some corners of the internet, dovetailed with a darker, uglier sentiment: People dismissing Covid-19 as “just” killing older people. People referring to Covid-19 as “boomer remover.”
Alessandra Lanti, 57, has felt wounded by the groundswell of generational resentment: “It is amazing how quickly we forget that old people were once young. They helped build this country, went to war, protested for rights that we now enjoy, paid taxes, and raised children who are now our friends.”
Lanti, who was born in Italy and whose parents live there, is probably more sensitive than most to the practical realities of triage mentality: Doctors in Italy are being forced to choose between patients every day, and there have been stories of older patients are left to die on cots, alone.
As Covid-19 claims more lives here in the U.S., more baby boomers will likely feel caught in a psychological vise: This is a can-do generation that can’t stop the invisible enemies of Covid-19 or age. All they can do is wash their hands and keep their distance.
If I’m honest, I still feel pretty invincible. But my husband has Type 1 diabetes. So you don’t need to tell us twice: We are working at home, having our groceries delivered, and washing our hands raw. This past weekend, I went for another long bike ride—but this time I rode alone.