A COVID Oral History: Pandemic different across generations

KIMBERLY COBB LEADS a “FUNctional Fitness” class outdoors at EastView in Middlebury during the pandemic. While social distancing was difficult for staff and residents alike, many people there feel that demonstrating their resilience fostered a sense of unity. Photo by Cari Burkard

A group of Middlebury College students learned oral history skills and helped preserve our current perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic by interviewing 25 local residents. The students prepared this analysis for Addison Independent readers and will have the interviews stored at the Vermont Folklife Center.

MIDDLEBURY — From kids and teens to retirees and super seniors, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the lives of all Addison County residents. However, different generations have carried unique perspectives on the pandemic’s place in their memories of the recent past.

The stories and insights shared with us by Middlebury residents, young and not so young, illuminate how they experienced two years of isolation, resilience and desire for a sense of community. Some interesting contrasts and overlaps emerge.

Upon initially hearing about the virus, some members of Middlebury’s EastView Retirement Community said they did not truly understand the magnitude of the situation until the reality of quarantine set in. How was life fundamentally going to change?

Susan Ring recalled the conversation she and her husband, Lawrence, had when they learned they had to isolate. Her doctor had told her, “You and Larry are now quarantined at home, you’re going to get a grocery shopper.” Susan remembered asking her husband, “‘How do you get a grocery shopper,’ I mean whoever heard of such a thing?”

Despite their initial shock, the Rings and other EastView residents acclimated to the pandemic lifestyle. They embraced new forms of interaction, most notably Zoom, to connect with friends and family. The staff and administrators at EastView did all they could to keep residents safe in isolation while also keeping them engaged.

For example, exercise class shifted from collective workouts in a community room to stretching and calisthenics in the doorways of each apartment, led by employees such as Rachel Klatzker, who walked up and down the halls to model the exercises for each resident who was participating. Klatzker, other staff and the residents made do with what they could, where they could.

Life changed in a similarly abrupt way for local teenagers. Like school districts across the nation, the Addison Central School District switched to remote learning in March 2020. Most teachers held classes over Zoom, while others delivered their lessons asynchronously — packets of schoolwork delivered to kids at home to be completed at their own pace.

With this shift, some Middlebury teens felt abandoned, because with online learning, they felt disconnected from their friends. Without the structure that school, sports and other extracurricular activities provided, these young people struggled to adjust to life during the shutdown. For many, the pandemic marked the first historic crisis of their lives. How could they manage the normal worries of teenage life in addition to the anxiety caused by all the disruptions and uncertainties of a deadly virus?

While some teens reported feeling overwhelmed with the isolation of being at home and facing screen work all day, some retirees came to view the pandemic as simply “one more challenge” in a long series of life challenges. After all, these folks had lived through significant global events such as foreign wars, other public health crises, the 9/11 attack, etc. One EastView resident put the pandemic into perspective:

LARRY AND SUSAN Ring, like most people, initially were shocked by the changes they had to make to their lives at the beginning of the pandemic. But, like so many, they acclimated.

“As more people are vaccinated, we realized at some point we have to learn to live with this just like with measles, chicken pox, or any other disease that sort of becomes an endemic.” Instead of trying to fixate our energy on the virus, this senior citizen hoped that COVID will “settle into one more thing that we have to deal with.”

“It doesn’t have to change our life completely,” she suggested.

As the pandemic conditions in 2020 and even 2021 redefined “normal” for Middlebury teens and retired folks, both groups turned to their respective communities for assistance. Connection with people, more than ever, was a lifeline.

“No one wants to be alone,” noted a junior at Middlebury Union High School.

Fortunately, the Addison Central Teens program offered a creative outlet for teens to hang out and be kids again. Meeting twice a week throughout the pandemic, young adults interacted safely, received homework help, and connected with friends at the teen center. Such bonding with other young people has given hope to many local students.

“It feels pretty normal now … or what I assume a normal high school experience feels like,” a MUHS ninth-grader commented recently.

With social institutions such as the teen center providing a bedrock sense of connection, this student felt hopeful for a greater sense of normalcy regardless of how long the pandemic actually lasts.

Likewise, while the need for social distancing proved difficult for residents and employees alike at EastView, the community dynamic of this retirement center has shaped how they kept going and made it this far through a long, challenging ordeal. Despite the physical separation, EastView employees believed the pandemic fostered unity among them as caretakers.

Klatzker recalled how the staff there adapted overnight.

“The core crew of folks who have been there from the beginning, we’ve had to come together and learn how to communicate and rely on each other,” she said.

From teaching outdoor dance lessons to delivering meals when the dining staff was shorthanded, EastView personnel took on what needed to be done, demonstrating their resilience daily. Even now, for Klatzker, the stress she feels about protecting the most vulnerable members of this retiree population weighs heavily, but she credits the community there for toughing out the worst of the situation together.

Most notably and perhaps understandably, the young people we interviewed kept focus on the most immediate alterations in life as they knew it, while locals from their grandparents’ generation did not. Teens’ remarks about the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic — manifested in sighs of resignation and wistful remarks about life before COVID — conveyed their collective fear of the world not returning to the only “normal” they had ever known. In contrast, EastView residents focused on a bigger picture, understanding that sacrifice was important, but so was holding on to the experience of life.

Despite their different attitudes, EastView residents and Middlebury teens looked within their respective communities to find and keep hope alive: “We’re just trying to survive together.”

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