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Still cautious, many older residents trim back their lifestyles in the time of COVID

The view from home: ‘This virus is nothing to play around with.’

Retired teachers Mary Sue and Chris Garwood spend much of their time walking near frozen Lake Sherman, socializing with immunized neighbors, and trying to figure out which risks to take, and which to avoid.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

They’re still on their laptops ordering N95 masks, cocooning in “bubbles” with vaccinated friends and neighbors, and steering clear of settings where people don’t take COVID-19 as seriously as they do.

Many older Massachusetts residents continue to lead tentative and isolated lives as the pandemic drags on, even as younger folks return to work or school, checking apprehensions at the door.

“It has me shut in right now,” said Elaine Maddox, an 80-year-old retired Boston city employee who seldom leaves her Hyde Park home. “No, I’m not going to take a lot of chances. This virus is nothing to play with. I want to be around as long as I can be around.”

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Nearly two years into a health crisis that has thwarted the hopeful at every turn, surveys by Morning Consult, a data intelligence firm, suggest older respondents remain less likely than adults overall to dine out, travel, or attend large gatherings. This month, for example, only 34 percent of baby boomers, the oldest generation listed in the findings, said they were comfortable going to the movies, versus 46 percent of all adults.

The risks are clear. Americans over 75 have suffered the greatest toll from the virus, with 444,819 deaths as of Jan. 26, followed by those ages 55 to 74, mostly baby boomers, with 324,485 deaths. Together those groups account for more than 89 percent of COVID-19 fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than three quarters of Massachusetts residents are now fully vaccinated, and a majority of older residents have also received booster shots, greatly reducing their chances of serious disease, though many aren’t sure how long their protection lasts. Others fear breakthrough cases, virulent new strains, or harsh side effects known as “long COVID” that linger after the virus, complicating their daily risk calculus.

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Within the older population, a substantial subset of people have resigned themselves to a lifestyle fundamentally different from the one they’d known until early in 2020. It’s a lifestyle governed by anxieties and precautions, FaceTiming with relatives, cooking at home, and binging on Netflix. Some have become intimately familiar with CDC guidance and Massachusetts case numbers, tracking surges, variants, and wastewater test levels.

Many are just grateful for their COVID pandemic companions.

“This year, we celebrate 50 years of marriage,” said Kathy Macdonald, 72, of Wellesley, who said she and husband Kevin visit their grandchildren on Zoom and bought an Airedale terrier to walk during the pandemic. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be sequestered with.”

Retired school teachers Chris Garwood, 69, and his wife Mary Sue, 65, relocated to rural Brimfield from New Mexico in 2017 to be closer to their son and his wife, who live in Cambridge. But the virus outbreak confounded many of their plans. Their son and daughter-in-law came for Christmas, but only after taking rapid COVID tests. And they decided against visiting Mary Sue’s sisters in Florida this winter.

Instead, the Garwoods spend much of their time walking near frozen Lake Sherman, socializing with immunized neighbors, and trying to figure out which risks to take, and which to avoid.

“We’re wearing the masks, and we have more on order,” Mary Sue Garwood said. “We look at the data. We make short little trips to the stores. We pick up our groceries, they put ‘em in the trunk.”

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As in any demographic, behaviors and attitudes among the senior set toward the unrelenting virus vary widely, from cautious to defiant, and can swing from day to day. “Some people become hermits, and others want to do everything,” said Christie Chung, psychology professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. “That has a lot to do with personality and culture.

A pressing challenge for those sticking close to home during the pandemic has been staying connected. Elaine Maddox rises early in Hyde Park and texts Bible verses — she calls them “daily devotions” — to her children, grandchildren, and fellow congregants at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan. “I do about 100 a day,” she said. “I do it in the morning just to let them know I’m thinking of them.”

Like the Macdonalds, Maddox and her husband, John, 77, a retired environmental engineer who does the shopping and cooking, have been married 50 years. Last summer, their children set up a tent in their yard so they could celebrate their golden anniversary outdoors.

The couple recently stepped down as bereavement ministers at their church, helping arrange funerals for congregants who died from COVID, among other causes. Elaine, who had knee surgery just before the virus hit, is still undergoing physical therapy. She hasn’t yet returned to church in person, but watches services each week on her tablet computer.

“If I didn’t have this problem with my leg, I’d most likely be volunteering at the church” despite the virus, she said. “But I don’t go out much now. I can’t tell you the last time I was in a store. It’s been about three years.”

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Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who noticed a spike in suicides among older residents in 2019, moved to alert municipal and law enforcement officials in her county, the state’s largest, to the dangers of loneliness and isolation. Since the pandemic began, the situation has worsened, she said, with older residents spending more time alone and some falling victim to online and telephone scammers.

“A lot of the struggles people are having were laid bare by the pandemic,” Ryan said. “Many people don’t want to leave their homes because they’re worried about COVID. ... We are definitely looking at services, around mental health and substance abuse, that people can get to online.”

For those who do venture out in the COVID era, things can get testy between the most vigilant folks and those with more casual attitudes.

Health care consultant Ellen Bender, who works out of her Newton home, has her groceries delivered, has postponed some routine medical appointments, and often begins planning what she’ll cook for dinner shortly after waking up. She recently went to pick up a tablecloth at a dry cleaner where, she said, “I had my first COVID altercation.”

When she opened the glass door, Bender said the man behind the counter wasn’t wearing a mask. She asked him to put one on, she recalled, but he said he didn’t have one and had just received a COVID booster shot. “He was rolling his eyes and making faces, and he said, ‘What are you so nervous about?’” she said.

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Ultimately, she asked the man to bring the tablecloth to her as she stood her ground near the door. Then she handed him $25 and rushed out without asking for change. “I’ll never go there again,” Bender said.

Even the most cautious seniors are loath to forgo the company of family members, especially for holidays and other important milestones.

After skipping Thanksgiving in 2020, before vaccines were rolled out, Bender and her husband, Michael, hosted her son and daughter-in-law and their grandchildren for the holiday last year, though everyone was tested beforehand. Similarly, Kathy and Kevin Macdonald, who’d avoided pandemic traveling, boarded a plane just before Christmas to visit their son and his wife and their grandchildren in Bloomington, Ind.

For them and many others, it seems, loved ones and celebratory moments are too precious to give up, even if they’re a little risky.

“As we get older, our social circle shrinks,” said Chung at Mills College. “We want to spend time with the people who are meaningful to us.”


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.