I first met Jane Dougall at the end of last year, thanks to my daughter Katharine. She’d heard about an “Eldering Group” that met regularly at the Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth that she thought I might be interested in. Partly because I often write or podcast about aging issues and partly because, well, I’m a member of the audience!

I love the word. Eldering. To me, it connotes sophistication, wisdom, and venerability (as opposed to vulnerability).

I went to a couple of in-person meetings before COVID-19 came crashing down on us and enjoyed getting to know the other members of the group and discussing a wide range of interesting topics. The meetings are now online and they’ve moved from the first Wednesday of each month to every Wednesday. If you’re interested, I’ll give you more information at the end of the post.

I’m pretty sure the Eldering group was Jane Dougall’s brainchild. At a recent online meeting, we shared how we’ve been managing during the pandemic. All of us, because of our ages, are in the high-risk category, some more than others because of underlying health issues. Some are sheltering in place with a partner/spouse and some are on their own. Loneliness and isolation are already huge issues for older people and it’s likely the current situation makes it even worse for some. Although, I’d like to think that, in general, we are reaching out more, connecting in ways that maybe we hadn’t ever considered before.

Back to Jane. I was struck by some things she said during that meeting — thoughtful and insightful observations about coping with isolation. I asked if she’d like to contribute to the growing number of stories people have been sharing here on the Catching Health blog.

This is Jane’s story.

Self portrait of Jane Dougall's shadow
Self-portrait by Jane Dougall

Picking over the daily choices of news stories my preferences run to those who stand at the top of the mountain and see the long-range view. Like many of my boomer generation, I’ve been waiting for the “something that’s coming” for most of my life. The homestead, self-sufficient lifestyle I lived ceased years ago and I am now too old, too lacking in resources (strong back, supple body, determined partner, no land) needed to live that way. What was lacking back then and now was the awareness that no one can be self-sustaining in our world–the quality of air we breathe and the water we drink is dependent on the actions of our collective whole.

“Coping” now means an even stronger awareness of community. Our isolation proves to us each and every day how connection sustains us. We long for face-to-face contact and the vibrations of laughter filling the space between our bodies as we share tea or sunlight or beach walks. Instead, we Zoom, we FaceTime, we write emails, and we make phone calls. Then we feel ourselves drained, exhausted, yet wanting more. Perhaps that “vibrational thing” has more dimensions than we realized.

I used to walk around the biggest supermarkets I could find, chuckling at what I called my modern Hunter-Gatherer behavior, using the tall grocery cart handles for the support that makes walking easier for my problematic back. That cart, along with the smooth hard floors, allowed for movement that was often too difficult on sidewalks or nature paths. I liked being in grocery stores. On March 13th I discovered we’d stepped into a different world when I was in two of my favorite places, Trader Joe’s- the epicenter of the first pandemic madness- and then Whole Foods. Swaths of shelving were emptying in lightning speed, the plentiful stock of pasture-raised eggs was gone between my first and second passes as I went back to the dairy section for something I forgot. Shopping carts were piled high with all varieties of multiples. Was this the End Time? I went, only once, to the closest local grocery chain store. What had recently been so entertaining was now fraught with tension; shoppers coming too close setting off anxiety alarms; a sense that paper and cleaning products were forever disappeared. Those shopping around us formerly seen as not-yet-friends or possible future acquaintances were now The Competition. The tiny local grocery seemed safer if I shopped when the weather was truly awful and I darted in and out and could make do with formerly rejected brands and sky-high prices they had always charged for their proximity convenience. After that, I juggled to line up a “slot” for curbside pickup which further emphasized scarcity and competition. We are even more divided as the hale and hearty freely join store entrance lines while those of us with compromised circumstance watch from a distance trying to figure out how to get needed basics however we can.

We are all trying to follow “The Rules” but of course, my rules are different from your rules either because we formed our rules by listening or reading different information sources or the actual instructions changed (masks not needed to masks required). And what part of being a possible carrier do you not understand? Even health care workers themselves are looser than the army of we, the health compromised and scared. What about single women with children? Independent living wheelchair users?  And all the others who need to apply caution not remotely understood by those who feel they are not potential virus hosts?

Inside our living spaces, we ride roller-coaster emotions. It matters if it is stormy or if the sun is shining. It matters whether we are glued to the radio or the television or if we are purposely avoiding anything with the constant repetition of the words “corona” or “virus”. We escape into books or binge-watch murder mysteries. But when we come out of our distraction we are slammed into reminders of how it is now and that we can’t go over to the neighbor’s or see our grandchildren. Still, it is so damn annoying that people who previously had no use for jigsaw puzzles have now bought up all the supplies, and are then reselling them on eBay or Etsy with outrageous prices attached to each transaction.

The very worst part of this is the unknown unknowing. Some of us truly understand that we are not going back to what was. Ever. And we understand that we wouldn’t want to if we could. We humans had been destroying our planet and now the great “Something” is upon us. Whether you saw any of this as the logical results of “late state capitalism” or not, surely you knew that what had seemed like the acceptance of inequality was just plain wrong on every level. I welcome this change in perspective. As humans we denied the most blatant fact of all, that each and every one of us would, at some point, die. At the heart of our living was the pretense we could go on forever, even by those who are now deep into our advanced years. So now we sit with these things. Fear is all around us, within us, we are breathing fear whether or not we are recognizing it as such. The soul of this is transcendence, whether we mean ourselves or our beloved planet. We just have to figure out how to get there.

Jane Dougall

More from Jane

When I asked Jane if she’d write something, I discovered that she often shares her “word and picture musings” in her blog The Marginal Way. It’s definitely worth visiting.

Eldering: Conversations on Growing Older

The actual name of the eldering group is Eldering: Conversations on Growing Older. It has been shortened to E-eldering for the time being because the meetings are now online. They are every Wednesday from 1:00 to 2:30 via zoom. To join, you must register beforehand with the library: Thomas Memorial Library E-ldering Conversation Group. While you’re on the website, you should check out all the other interesting things the library has to offer, including a ton of virtual programs. Here’s the link to their virtual front desk: Thomas Memorial Library.