Blanche Romey never minded picking up an extra loaf of bread or a dozen eggs from the grocery store for one of the residents at the Duncan Genns Apartments, where she’s been a community center volunteer for 30 years.
But in early April, as COVID-19 cases rose in New York City, the 80-year-old grandmother with decades of experience as a community organizer and affordable housing advocate, began to notice more and more empty shelves at the stores in Bushwick, her Brooklyn neighborhood.
Then she learned that the community center had closed down.
The pandemic, so deadly for older people, was also indirectly undermining the community structures that support them. Before the pandemic, the National Academy of Sciences released a report saying that 43 percent of people over the age of 60 acknowledged feeling lonely. COVID-19 is making that chronic problem much worse.
Romey rents the upper floors of her home to photographer Sarah Blesener. As Blesener covered the impact of COVID-19 on New York hospitals, she began to worry about her landlord. (Here's how systemic racism and coronavirus are killing people of color in New York City.)
Even as deaths spiked, Romey stuck to her daily routine of exercise, prayer, volunteering, and checking in on her neighbors, always wearing dramatic clothing and one of her myriad vivid hats. “She is so in-your-face, so strong and vocal,” says Blesener, “I started to think that maybe she wasn’t aware of the risks.”
Blesener needn’t have worried. Romey knew the risks but was intent on keeping herself busy supporting neighbors. Her determination inspired Blesener’s photo project on COVID-19 and older people.
“I was actually feeling kind of burned out from seeing so much death and dying and all of those aspects,” Blesener says. “I was wondering, ‘How do we make visual imagery that goes beyond the news narrative?’”
The answer came from her daily check-ins with Romey, conducted from the top of a stairwell to maintain social distancing. Romey lives in the basement of her home with her 83-year-old husband Vance, who is battling cancer. Their two daughters and three granddaughters live nearby, but Romey spends most of her time doing her neighborhood advocacy work and checking on her neighbors.
“I see how the isolation and the depression is hitting some of my people,” Romey says. “I tell them to pray and get out there early before the crowds come. I tell them you can’t stay cooped up all the time.”
Romey’s resilience typifies the paradox of life for older people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have survived physical and psychological traumas that in theory could prepare them for the grim scenario of lockdowns, isolation, and diminished functioning. But that wisdom and endurance doesn’t lessen their risk of severe illness and death from coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that eight of every 10 coronavirus deaths have been people over the age of 65.
Matthew Smith, an associate professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health and co-director of the school’s Center for Population Health and Aging, says that physical vulnerability deepens the potential for depression and anxiety.
“COVID-19 prevention strategies have robbed many elderly people of the very tools that kept them going,” Smith says. “They’re not going to health care facilities in the same way, they’re not interacting with their community centers and clubs, and they’re not interacting with each other. Those enriched connections are so important for older adults.” (Psychologists are studying how we cope with social distancing.)
Coupled with the fact that many older people also can’t spend time with close family members, Smith says there’s a real need to monitor their overall mental health status. “A hug means a lot. It can be very transformative during times of stress, and for many seniors, the loss of that emotional resource can take a toll.”
It all boils down to maintaining a healthy sense of self for an age group with decades of valuable life experience but fewer ways to utilize that expertise, Smith says. “When an older adult has purpose, it’s a driving force for their livelihood. Having a sense of contribution to society is very fulfilling and provides a great deal of motivation. Isolation chips away at that.”
Romey doesn’t envision herself slowing down anytime soon, because too many of her neighbors need that boost of encouragement she can offer.
“I can understand the loneliness, and that’s why I do what I do,” she says. “I have my aches and pains, and my eyes are going, but I give God thanks. I have to keep on pushing. They need the help, and I need to know that they’re doing okay.”
This work was supported in part by the National Geographic Society's COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists with additional support from the International Center of Photography.