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Opinion: 70 San Diego seniors are documenting how they survived the pandemic. Their book is free.

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 1/21/2021 Dorothy L. Parker
a person standing in front of a store filled with lots of food: Conrad Kellenberger of North Park, wearing a face mask, shops at Barons Market during the seniors-only time, one hour before the store opens to the general public on March 20, 2020. (Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune) Conrad Kellenberger of North Park, wearing a face mask, shops at Barons Market during the seniors-only time, one hour before the store opens to the general public on March 20, 2020. (Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Parker is president of San Diego Independent Scholars and a retired professor of microbiology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She lives in La Jolla.

It all started with a simple question: Can we work together to gain the strength needed for practicing social isolation, thus limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus and preventing unnecessary deaths?

This expanded into: Should we leave a record of our pandemic-related experiences for future generations?

It ended with: a set of 70 senior citizens who struggled through various stages of tech phobia until they could maintain contact via virtual meetings and also easily exchange written documents electronically. And a 116-page publication in which 40 seniors described their experiences, problems and solutions during the pandemic.

This book, “COVID-19: getting through with wit and grit,” was published recently on the website of the San Diego Independent Scholars (SDIS) at sdscholars.org, in its projects section.

How did this happen? A warning about the danger of coronovirus came early — in February 2020 — from a longtime member of SDIS, Dr. Beatrice K. Rose (age 105). She was alive during the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, served as a frontline doctor during the polio epidemics of the 1940s, and spent many years teaching public health in a medical school. She entered strict self-isolation in February 2020, a month before California became the first state to institute such precautions, and immediately warned our organization to avoid public gatherings.

Avoiding face-to-face contact was not easy for a group of primarily tech-resistant oldsters whose closest relationships had previously involved “study group” gatherings in private homes. However, we had little choice but to tackle the requisite computer skills for maintaining virtual contact.

As we bumbled along, we experienced various technological troubles and related psychological maladies, as outlined in “Coronavirus-induced Computer Dependency Disorder” on page 62 of the book mentioned above. Nonetheless, we persisted. Paradoxically, some of the resulting lifestyle modifications turned out to have advantages, Jack Cumming argued in “Benefits of Crisis.”

We discovered that online gatherings were inclusive because they allowed easy access for persons who had difficulty getting to meeting locations. Indeed, different online study groups were able to welcome new participants from distant cities or longtime SDIS members who previously had dropped out of similar activities because of health or driving issues. Online sessions also allowed for geographic diversity and varied viewpoints, particularly as we began sharing online events with other independent scholar organizations in the Pacific Northwest, the East Coast, the Midwest, England, France and Australia.

The idea of creating a written record of pandemic-related experiences came from members whose families had been influenced by earlier epidemics and wished to know more about what happened back then. For example, in 1918, Jill Swaim’s great-grandmother died of Spanish flu, leaving Swaim’s 15-year-old grandmother to care for three younger siblings, but nobody asked her grandmother about her life during that pandemic. Similarly, Kenneth Krauss found himself under the care of a teenage sister, and in a quarantined house, when his brother developed polio and went to the hospital, accompanied by his mother.

Many of us turned to reading about earlier epidemics. Since we found that information to be helpful, we hope that our book about 2020 will interest our descendants and others.

The book contains articles about prior health crises and how our ancestors coped: “Plagues in Ancient Greece and Rome,” by Michael Sage, “Pandemics and the Longue Durée,” by Oliver B. Pollak, and “Ancient Wisdom Leads to Happiness in the Time of COVID-19,” by Ashwini Mokashi.

This COVID-19 project is not for profit. Although the resulting book is copyrighted and cannot be reprinted for commercial purposes without permission, copies for personal use are free when downloaded or printed from sdscholars.org. It is our gift to the community.

What did we learn from 2020 and the pandemic? Change is inevitable. Becoming an ossified oldster is optional. Learning new skills is more fun. Isolation can increase with aging, even without a pandemic. Knowing how to interact electronically helps.

Working on a meaningful project, especially if it is shared with others, keeps life interesting. Human cultures muddle along and make many mistakes, but humankind persists and even thrives.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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