This story was powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.
Americans have faced world wars, economic recessions, and even other pandemics. Some people have lived through all three. I sought out senior citizens to see how the COVID-19 pandemic compares to other crises – and what we might be able to learn from them.
With a little help from Washoe County Senior Services (and Twitter) I chatted over the phone with three people who can help offer a dose of historic perspective during these trying times.
K. David was born in 1930, just months after Black Tuesday kicked off the Great Depression. He’s in Reno, Nevada, now, but he grew up in the East.
“I didn’t know the numbers then, but the economy created an unemployment rate of 25% or higher,” David told me. “And in the neighborhood that I grew up in, Brooklyn, New York, it was probably much higher than that, possibly even double. My father was unemployed… And my mother, not wanting us to be thrown out on the street or failing to get one good meal a day, managed to get hired on various positions, starting with the census, interestingly enough.”
Those positions were funded by the Works Progress Administration, an employment and infrastructure program set up by then-President Franklin Roosevelt to address the economic crash. But if the mass unemployment wasn’t enough, there was also something else lurking through neighborhoods: polio.
“I can recall my mother saying, ‘Don’t play in the gutter,’” David said. “She knew something about people getting sick. And I did know one person [who got polio], in fact – he was one of my best friends during a certain period of my life in junior high school.”
Mel McVeigh remembers when her cousin had polio.
“There was a lot of panic with polio, because they didn’t know how it was transferred or transmitted from person to person,” she told me.
Her cousin, she said, had to go into an iron lung, which needed to be constantly monitored, and she remembers community members coming by to help man the machine and keep him alive.
McVeigh, now 76, has several health issues, including diabetes, and she’s on dialysis. That makes her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. But in times like these, she said she’s doing what she always does: lean heavily on her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. McVeigh told me she hopes everyone’s reaching out to friends and family, spreading love and compassion.
“If you have a relative that is isolated, get in touch with them, talk to them. Tell them that you remember them and they’re important,” McVeigh said.
Relatives are important to Fay Benninghove, too. The 73-year-old widow lives alone. Her family does her grocery shopping for her. She told me she can’t compare what’s happening now to anything she’s lived through.
“I just feel people don’t feel any control over the issue, and truly don’t know what to do and what’s the right thing to do,” Benninghove said.
Benninghove is a double amputee who is in a wheelchair, and has asthma.
“So I guess I’m just so used to plowing forward,” she said. “I don’t know anything else, but I just want to keep on going.”
But she does worry about what lies ahead.
“What is it going to do to the services that are provided for us? Will that change? Will we get less services?” she asked. “Because it does seem like when something like this happens, the seniors are cut off first from things… I feel like sometimes they feel like the seniors are expendable. ‘You’ve lived your lives, so if you go, oh well.’”
To get through this fear, Benninghove relies on family, her pets and her faith.
For K. David, he keeps himself busy by walking. Before all this, he was walking 2 to 3 miles a day – at age 90.
“And only very recently have I cut that down to about a mile and a half,” he said.
That’s mostly because he’s not walking to the grocery store anymore, instead opting for neighborhood strolls.
While that can be frustrating, David admitted it’s also a little friendlier these days.
“People that I know asking me on the street if I want them to pick up some groceries for me – that wouldn’t have occurred a year ago,” he said.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.