Throughout the pandemic, I’ve had serendipitous interactions in public with folks I’d never meet in my work and online spaces. Many are older adults I encounter on public transportation, at parks, outdoor cafes, and doctor’s waiting rooms. When the sky turned tangerine from wildfire smoke, I commiserated with a lifelong San Francisco resident in his 70s as we waited for an ophthalmology appointment. He shook his head and said he’d never seen anything like the eerie golden fog over Golden Gate Park.
Recent analysis of federal data suggests that isolation has contributed to 13,200 excess dementia deaths since the pandemic’s start. To prevent COVID outbreaks, nursing homes have curtailed family visits and social activities, such as group classes and shared meals, that help stimulate the mind and blunt dementia’s ravages.
These findings tell us something important about the dangers of losing in-person connections for the majority of seniors who live in the community. Many avoid isolation by socializing in religious spaces, senior centers and “third places” such as coffee shops, parks and libraries. Preventable deaths and suffering from isolation will rise if we don’t safeguard the public spaces that inoculate elders against the toll of loneliness.
We need neighborhood interactions
I’ve thought of the older people I met with dementia in New York City during my research and the importance of their neighborhood interactions. A caretaking wife and her husband with advanced dementia came daily to a bakery that drew many seniors who preferred this kind of public living room to senior centers. Though he couldn’t say much beyond “hello,” he smiled often. Another woman with worsening dementia spent all day in McDonald’s people-watching and greeting passers-by to avoid sitting alone at home.
Neighborhood support networks provided older people with a sympathetic ear and a laugh, small favors and even an emergency loan. Most lived alone, far from relatives, or they had outlived family and friends, and these connections helped them remain independent. After hip surgery, one 88-year-old man received 20 visitors from the bakery who brought him food, newspapers, and their well wishes.
I’ve become acquainted with another elderly familiar stranger at a North Beach cafe. She lives a 10-minute bus ride away. I still don’t know her name but have learned about her upbringing in the Philippines and her daughter’s recent move out of the city. One afternoon as we sat at opposite ends of a bench in Washington Park, a man in his mid-30s sat between us, dropped his mask, and made a phone call in view of a sign about distancing and mask rules for park-goers. He ignored me as I asked him to wear his mask, before growling at me that if I was so afraid, I should stay home. He’s the one who should stay home, my bench neighbor complained as he walked away.
No one should have to stay home. Digital tools have given us an important lifeline, but the virtual world can’t entirely replace the physical world. Increasing infection rates among younger adults show the limits of a digital-only world even for those more comfortable with technology.
Cities like New York and San Francisco have only recently resumed limited indoor dining. But this delicate progress depends on lowering infection rates. Florida has taken the opposite approach, prohibiting enforcement of mask mandates and lifting COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, despite high infection rates. Such measures risk reversing strides made in protecting essential public spaces and promise an interminable cycle of reopening and closing.
Bars, restaurants and parks are the few places we have for intergenerational contact. I think of a beloved, now-closed dive bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, where I chatted with a septuagenarian regular named Robert. He died in March. We’ve rightly worried about older adults’ vulnerabilities, but the old can teach us much about surviving a plague. Robert showed me the value of humor in the face of adversity and spoke openly about his past struggles with drugs, military service, and his first wife’s suicide. We laughed together. I miss him, his honesty, and the camaraderie we found in this place lost to the pandemic.
Protect each other to avoid isolation
In times of deep social and political division, these spaces also provide a venue for us to talk to people who don’t share our worldview.
On a road trip, I chatted with the owner of a diner on the Oregon-California border, in a county where 79% of voters cast a ballot for Trump in 2016. He described how his family had just opened the diner in January and survived COVID lockdown with the community’s help. I never learned his political leanings, but where else would I have crossed paths with him?
Public life is a treasure that deserves our protection. It’s a precious asset for rebuilding cities devastated by the pandemic’s economic fallout and crucial for the physical and emotional health of a community’s residents. As Mitchell Moss, Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University, argues, the great advantage of large cities like New York is “the brilliance of street life, the spark of diverse human interaction and the ease of face-to-face communication and contact, made possible by the density of our homes and offices.” Despite budget shortfalls, we must continue to invest in our social infrastructure and shared services, such as public transportation.
We need city, state, and federal leadership that offers consistent public health messaging and science-based policy. Short of a national mask mandate, governors shouldn’t cave to political pressure and let statewide mask orders expire, as Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves recently did.
We all want health, security and a good life. That “good life” looks different for many of us, but if we can’t hash out a long-term strategy to protect each other, we’ll live in perpetual isolation. Older adults and people with preexisting conditions will feel the pain most. Without aggressive action to ensure that we can age safely and comfortably in the community, we risk forever losing the neighborhood spaces that thread our increasingly frayed social fabric and transform a collection of buildings, sidewalks, and storefronts into home.
Stacy Torres, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco.