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Seniors, deemed most vulnerable to virus, grapple with ‘social distancing’

Many say they’re being more careful, but can’t stop living their lives

Seniors played cribbage at the Billlerica Senior Center. The center has made efforts to keep people informed on the coronovirus, and has decided to shut down operations for the time being.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Social distancing,” once considered a health hazard for older Americans, has suddenly become a necessity.

With health authorities warning that the novel coronavirus poses a higher risk to older adults, many seniors are adjusting to a new reality, where gatherings they’d looked forward to are cancelled, and daily activities can feel fraught with risk.

“I’m very queasy about being in a big group with a lot of people,” said Pauline Nesbitt, 76, of Plymouth, who still does her own grocery shopping, but has become more cautious about when she ventures out.

Massachusetts seniors were absorbing the stark message from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization last week that older adults and those with serious medicinal conditions aren’t just more susceptible to contracting Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, but are more likely to die or be hospitalized.


While the message is sobering, and almost everyone is taking it to heart, it’s also putting a crimp on their social lives.

Patricia Zaido, 80, recently returned from a Caribbean island to find her schedule of activities ― several lectures and an event where she was keynote speaker ― scrapped.

“This is frightening,” said Zaido, retired director of performing arts at Salem State University. “I had plans, and now I’m sitting here thinking about all the things that were cancelled. It’s a very strange feeling, wondering what I’m going to do now.”

Many say they’ve resolved to carry on with as much of their daily lives as possible, despite the invisible threat from the spreading virus that was declared a pandemic last week.

Irene Rondeau wiped down an area at the Billlerica Senior Center.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“We’re not stocking up on groceries or buying extra toilet paper,” Salem resident Jeanne Pitman, 78, a retired rest home administrator said last Wednesday. "My husband and I have plans to go to Texas for his granddaughter’s graduation [later this year], and we’re going to do it.”


Catherine Hurst, 75, of Providence, who retired from her job as a marketing professor at Simmons University in Boston, said Wednesday she wasn’t yet ready to scale back.

“I wash my hands more than I did before, but I haven’t stopped going to anything,” she said, even as more activities were being cancelled everywhere. "I’m sticking with the program for now.”

Others say they’re trying to balance competing worries. They’ve long been warned of the perils of loneliness and social isolation, which are particularly acute among older adults and linked to rising rates of stress, depression, and suicide. But skipping travel and social events is the surest way to avoid the virus, which in China, where it first appeared, killed 20 percent of those 80 and older who contracted it.

Many said they were trying to find a middle path, at least for now, continuing to see family and friends, and to attend small groups like book clubs, but avoiding larger gatherings.

Senior centers, which have offered a refuge for older residents in other crises, had hoped to play that role again. But this time it is proving more difficult.

“The reason we exist is to provide engagement and community,” said Jean Bushnell, director of Billerica’s Council on Aging. “You have to find a balance. We tell [seniors] not to put themselves in a situation that increases their risk.”

At the senior center last week, volunteers were busy scrubbing all surfaces on which a virus could live.


“We’re doing the whole building ― the door knobs, the railings, the elevators, the computers, anything that people touch,” said Joe Darrigo, 81, one of the volunteers. “If you keep wiping them down, there won’t be a problem.”

Bill Neeb, 65, who works on a team that helps Billerica residents prepare their tax returns at the senior center, said he cleans the area before and after every session.

“In between appointments,” he said, “we use wipes and sanitizers.”

By the weekend, however, Billerica officials had decided to shut down operations at the senior center for the time being.

Plymouth resident Mary Mullaney, 76, said the rising anxiety became clear to her when she recently traveled to Maryland to visit her daughter, who’d recently attended a conference in Seattle, a center of the outbreak.

“She sent me home with a bottle of Purell," said Mullaney. "And when I got home, she told me to shower and wash my clothes.”

Many seniors acknowledge they’re growing more concerned by the day and taking whatever precautions they can ― but they also insist they have to keep living their lives.

At her church last week, “the priest [wasn’t] shaking hands with us now,” said 77-year-old Plymouth resident Betty Weeden. “We just put up the peace sign to one another.” At the same time, she said, “I’m not living in a fearful state."

Marilyn Levine, 72, whose husband sits on the Plymouth Board of Health, said the virus has forced her to change habits.


“I’m very much a hugger and a hand-shaker,” Levine said. “But now I’m doing fist bumps and elbow bumps.” She still gets together with small groups of friends, but said, “As this continues, it’s something we think about.”

Others have already begun withdrawing from some activities. Plymouth resident Betty Clough, 78, stopped going to restaurants. She’s also nervous about handling money.

“We’re touching and feeling things that a lot of other people have touched,” she said,

The virus jitters have robbed Clough of a chance to take part in a cherished rite of passage: her great-granddaughter’s first birthday party, which the child’s parents cancelled because of the public health crisis.

“I was disappointed," Clough said. “We hadn’t seen her since she was born. We’re just going to wait and see what happens.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com.