‘I Felt Young, but not Anymore – If the Virus Doesn’t Kill Us, Sadness Will’

October 12, 2020

A social life on hold, fear of going out and difficulties with new technology are exacerbating the loneliness felt by the elderly, who account for 20% of the population of Spain

Maria Yéboles became a widow at the age of 57. At that stage of her life, her struggle revolved around securing her widow’s pension – one day she even ran into then-Labor Minister Javier Arenas at a restaurant, and took it up with him. Now, at the age of 89, she is the president of the Zamora Widows Association and is still struggling, but these days the fight is about preventing women her age from becoming isolated in their homes, fearing the virus and falling sick with sadness.

“A few days ago, at midnight, a friend phoned me,” she recalls. “She said to me, ‘María, I’m really scared and I feel terrible; I haven’t been out for three months.’ She said her daughter wouldn’t let her go out because she was afraid she would catch the virus. So I called her daughter and said, ‘Either you take your mother out for a walk tomorrow or I’ll take her out myself.’ Really, enough is enough. I know they’re doing it to protect us, but they’re wrong. We’re old, not stupid.”

María and her friends belong to a demographic of nine million Spaniards over the age of 65. Of this group, representing 20% of a population of 47 million, more than two million live alone. And of those who live alone, 72% are women. Now, the virus and the measures to tackle its spread are destroying the world that Spain’s seniors were looking forward to enjoying during their retirement.

Some, like Guillermo García, a former Civil Guard officer in La Palma del Condado, in Huelva province, are trying to be philosophical about the situation. “I am already 87 and I used to make up to five trips a year with the IMSERSO [a state-funded program for seniors that includes travel packages], but now that’s been suspended and I am grounded. I hardly go any further than the local square, have a coffee with a friend, and head back home. You don’t go out with the same cheerful feeling you used to; now you go out self-consciously, so it’s like you’re not really going out at all.”

For Ena Velasco, 70, the world has become an uphill battle, and even a trip to the local square in Madrid’s La Ventilla neighborhood is too daunting. “The lockdown left us, the elderly, traumatized,” she says. “A young person can say that this will be over at some point. But we can’t. They are making the end of our lives a bitter one. That’s how I feel – bitter.

I used to go to two cultural centers, but now they’re closed. They tell you to keep in touch online, but they don’t know if you have a computer, or if you can afford to pay the internet service fee. Everything is set up for young people. They are used to everything being virtual, but we need to touch, to feel, to see the teacher, our grandchildren, the doctor.

Even the doctors don’t take care of you anymore; they are also confined, protecting themselves, scared. You call the clinic and they don’t answer the phone, and when they do, they give you an appointment for a phone consultation several months down the line, even if you tell them you have depression and are plagued by horrible thoughts.

Up to now, I felt young, but not anymore. If the virus doesn’t kill us, sadness will.”

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