As part of Propellerfish’s Coronavirus work-from-home plan, we ask our team members to call their parents and grandparents.

Our projects rarely ask questions about how we can make the world around us more user friendly for our parents and grandparents. This is a big group of people. It’s also a group that, through a mix of genetics and better decisions, we will likely be joining at some point in time. With our team working from home amidst a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the older people in our lives, we asked everyone to call their parents and grandparents. We asked them to check in and listen for insights into the years ahead of us.

The effects of age magnify physical distances.

The physical paths to the things we care about most become longer with age. A short walk to visit a neighbour becomes an investment of a limited amount of energy that needs to be budgeted and replenished. Travelling even short distances comes with risks of falling which limits access to things we care about as we get older. Many of the seniors we spoke to could no longer drive, which transformed small trips into huge distances overnight.

“I can walk around on my own with a walking stick around the house but generally feel breathless after a few steps and then I have to sit down. I’m bored at home, I don’t go out besides medical appointments at the hospital and  functions like weddings. Even that it is a chore to shower and tie a saree and go anywhere.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

The effects of age puts distance between us and the activities that give us meaning.

Seniors talked to us about being distanced from the activities that gave them meaning in their younger years. One grandparent whose primary source of exercise and social interaction came from a regular game of tennis twice a week had to stop after a bad fall. Many talked to us about retirement distancing them from the profession that had given them meaning their entire lives.

Seniors Basketball
“I knew my squash game was in decline, but I didn’t want to give it up. For about 18 months after quitting I was depressed. I realised I was missing something that I’d actually spent a lot of time doing and it was really important to me.” (Tim’s Dad, UK)

Aging puts distance between us and the people we care about.

The seniors in our lives talked about being both literally and metaphorically farther away from the people they cared about. Some had lost hearing and found it hard to connect with the people around them. We heard about how younger people couldn’t relate to their experiences in older age. And obviously, the physical distance they need to travel in order to visit people they care about is harder to travel with depleted energy levels and less access to transportation.

“You can’t hear and it’s frustrating. I’m right there in a room with people and I don’t know what’s happening or what they’re trying to say to me. You’re physically there but you’re still far away.” (Miguel, 96, Miami)
“In the last 2 years especially, I feel more lonely because I’m less mobile. My two daughters live with me but they go to work. I have a helper from India and we talk a lot about the customs and I tell her my stories from when i had struggles.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

Getting older puts distance between us and strangers.

Our seniors felt they weren’t acknowledged by people out in the world the way they were when they were younger. Shop staff are less likely to approach them, people are less likely to make eye contact with them on the street, and they generally feel as though they go unnoticed when out in public.

Senior
“A woman I’m in the garden club with asked me, ‘do you ever get the feeling that people treat you like you’re invisible now that you’re old?’ and it’s true. People in stores don’t pay attention to you.” (Retired Nurse, 76, Miami)

The effects of aging create distance between us and ourselves.

Our grandparents talked about feeling distanced from themselves. On the one hand they talked to us about how in their minds they feel like the same person they were in their younger years. On the other, they felt their diminishing physical and mental capacity a constant reminder of the distance between the person they were and the person they are today.

Senior Insights
“Looking at pictures of me 10 years ago, it’s not the same person. If I see pictures on the wall taken 40 years ago, it’s there but I am not there anymore.” (Alex’s Dad, 95)

The Covid-19 crisis is challenging us all to find ways to manage distance from our work, from our loved ones, and from the basic necessities we need to keep ourselves and our families going. As we manage the crisis ahead, let’s think about the members of our communities for whom age has already made the things that matter farther and harder to access. And let’s take a moment to think about how we can play a small part in bridging that distance for them through this crisis and beyond.

Aside from asking staff calling their grandparents, Propellerfish has donated to Meals On Wheels and Age UK who are offering practical support for the elderly in the US and UK during this time. We have also made a donation to Doctor’s Without Borders whose work will become increasingly important as this crisis impacts some of the more vulnerable regions of the world where much of our project work happens.