COLUMBUS, Ohio – For Columbus area senior citizens, the COVID-19 pandemic was marked by change, resilience and adaptability.
As the number of in-person gatherings shrank to zero, seniors — like the rest of us — began living mostly virtual lives. But now that the statewide health orders have been lifted and vaccination rates slowly continue to increase throughout Ohio, seniors have begun moving back into their pre-COVID routines.
Annette Schorr said life on Zoom, a video conferencing platform that gained popularity during the pandemic, made for a lower-key life. While she was able to keep up with her loved ones through regular Zoom calls, the lack of in-person connections was palpable.
After more than a year of virtual dinner parties, cooking classes and even a virtual scavenger hunt, the 79-year-old said that finally gathering with others in person was liberating.
"Seeing people in flesh and blood was just so affirming," Schorr said.
The Westerville resident added that gathering with friends and family in person has been much more personal and dynamic than their previous Zoom meetings.
"There's an electricity and spontaneity of being in person," Schorr said.
And while Schorr welcomed in-person connections with open arms, experts say it is normal for some to still feel hesitant about returning to their pre-COVID lives.
Dr. Marian Schuda, medical director of the OhioHealth John J. Gerlach Center for Senior Health, said some seniors might need nudging to get back into their pre-pandemic habits.
"Don't be afraid to gently coax grandma to come out to brunch with you," Schuda said. "If she goes, she'll probably have a good time."
Before the pandemic, Schuda would tell seniors to have at least one thing every day to look forward to. She hasn't changed her advice now that the world is reopening. This way, she said, days won't blend together.
Schuda is encouraging seniors to use summer's warm weather to its fullest potential. Gathering outdoors at a safe distance, she said, is a great way for seniors to acclimate to post-pandemic activities.
Senior Center programming, which largely faltered over the past year, was another of Schuda's pre-COVID tips for seniors looking for consistent engagement. Now, Schuda said senior centers are beginning to reopen, offering activities to those who have been feeling the void.
Schorr participates in a weekly discussion group at the Westerville Senior Center. She said that after the pandemic's onset, the group moved to virtual sessions. Participation dropped from nearly 20 people to about five.
One of those five is Ron Kenreich, 79, of Westerville.
Kenreich, an audiophile, has missed both attending and singing in live concerts because of COVID. Over the past year, Kenreich would visit his brother at his Pickerington farm. But besides those fraternal visits, he and his wife, Beth, also 79, kept in-person interaction to a minimum.
"It was different, but it wasn't painfully different," Kenreich said of his lockdown experience.
The couple, who have been married for 57 years, would spend time together, composing music and taking daily walks.
Kenreich said the discussion group has been a positive outlet for him over the past 15 months.
"They just kind of encourage you to look at life a different way," he said of the discussion topics covered.
Lisa Clark, senior support program coordinator at Concord Counseling Services, runs the discussion group. She said technology proved to be a barrier for some of the group members, but that seniors are a resilient group.
While many of the group members are ready to return to in-person meetings, Clark stressed the importance of creating space for the differing level of transition for which people are comfortable.
"You have to meet people where they're at," Clark said.
She emphasized the need for compassion as society enters this next phase of the pandemic, and expressed hope for what seniors will be able to do going forward.
"There's still a lot of life," she said. "But that life was kept in a box."
As a means of stepping outside their COVID-induced box, on the summer solstice, Rob and Beth Kenreich ate dinner inside a restaurant — not on its patio — for the first time since before the pandemic.
"We're just happy things are moving in the right direction," she said.
For Roy Nichols, moving in the right direction means getting back to his many recreation and volunteer activities that were paused due to the pandemic.
Nichols, of Westerville, loves the arts. He cannot wait for live theater to pick back up. He also is excited for his creative writing class and history group to return to in-person meetings.
In early January, Nichols lost consciousness in his home, and was rushed to the emergency room. The 74-year-old was diagnosed with acute respiratory failure, pneumonia and COVID-19.
He almost died.
"COVID is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy," he said.
The retired lawyer and self-described storyteller has since recovered, but he is still worried about the long-lasting impacts of the virus.
"COVID zapped my energy level," Nichols said.
But his worries have not stopped him from beginning to fill his pocket-sized planner with in-person activities. And after being vaccinated, Nichols said a lot of his anxiety surrounding the virus has subsided.
Schorr echoed Nichols' sentiment, saying that she has been very fortunate during the pandemic and is excited about what is yet to come.
"COVID had its hard parts," Schorr said. "But it also provided an arena. In a way, it made life real."
She said the pandemic, and especially embracing her granddaughter for the first time in more than a year, provided a crucial reminder: "Don't take this life for granted."
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