COVID-19 has hit the elderly hard and left many alone in confinement. But my grandmother in China has endured, even thrived, offering a lesson in tenacity.
China’s population is aging quickly, with more and more of the elderly living alone. That raises many concerns, especially during trying times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the pandemic, the elderly are strongly advised to stay at home. They are urged to keep calm, continue living as much as possible as before and not cut themselves off from the rest of the world.
My 75-year-old grandmother, Lixin Zhu, is among those who have had to face the crisis alone.
Her husband, my grandfather, passed away last November. It was one day before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday break, and I flew home to China from my school in the United States just in time to attend his funeral.
My grandmother would greet us each day with messages.
For most of their 51 years of marriage, my grandparents lived in Tai’an, a small city three hours by train south of Beijing. My grandfather had been in poor health, but no matter where they went, he always appeared together with my grandmother.
We were not prepared for his sudden death. Afterwards, we asked my grandmother if she wanted to go to Beijing to live with my mother, but she insisted on staying in Tai’an with the companionship of a nurse. When the Thanksgiving break ended, I returned to school, and my mother had to go back to Beijing for work. My grandmother was now alone.
After that, we kept in touch using WeChat and the internet so we still knew everything happening in her life and kept her company as best we could. Every morning, she would type out a few sentences in our family group chat, saying good morning or sharing pictures she took at a nearby park or of her cooking.
If she needed anything, my uncle’s family could attend to her at any time because they lived in the same neighborhood. The nurse was there 24/7, taking care of her and cooking for her.
My grandmother didn’t talk too much about her grief, even right after the funeral. She only told me to take care of myself studying abroad and assured us that she would be fine. She was trying to adapt to this new state: accentuating the positive and encouraging other family members.
But we could sense her grief, like ours, from a poem she wrote remembering my grandfather and in photos she took during the QingMing Festival, when Chinese visit the graves of loved ones.
Then, COVID-19 erupted right before Chinese New Year when my mother and my uncle’s family returned to Tai’an to be with my grandmother.
Being elderly during a pandemic is not easy.
People were advised to stay at home and to wear face masks if they had to go out, but supermarkets and drug stores were already running short of them.
When the New Year’s break ended and my mother had to go back to Beijing, she sensed that my grandmother would have to remain inside for a long time, without seeing any family. She prepared everything she could think of before she left.
She contacted a face mask seller, but each family was allowed to buy only 100 face masks. She explained that my grandmother was going to be alone at home; the seller then let her buy 200.
The day before my mother was to leave, the nurse informed her she could not return to Tai’an because her village did allow any outside vehicles to enter, which meant she could not use public transport. My mother offered to pick her up outside the village if she could manage to come out, and luckily it worked.
My grandmother kept updating us about her life on WeChat. Every evening my time I would see her “good morning” greeting. Her life at home was mostly the same as before.
My grandmother started rationing her intake of COVID-19 news.
Meanwhile, my mother had to work from home during a 14-day quarantine after she returned from Tai’an. Back at school, I was unable to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, required by many U.S. colleges for admission, because it was canceled. In late March, less than one week before spring break, my school sent an e-mail announcing that the spring break would be extended by a week and all classes would be online for at least the next month.
As is well known now, COVID-19 attacks alveoli in our lungs, making it difficult to breathe. My grandfather had died of emphysema and associated complications that damaged his lungs and made it impossible for him to breathe by himself.
The treatment for COVID-19 patients in serious condition is so similar to the treatment my grandfather underwent that whenever my grandmother or I saw news on TV about the effects of the pandemic, we thought about how he experienced the same pain.
She told me that she couldn’t sleep at night because news of patients in intensive care kept reminding her of my grandfather. The insomnia triggered symptoms of her previous heart disease. My uncle and aunt bought her sleeping pills and medicine for heart disease online.
Then she realized she couldn’t bear so much news, so she stopped watching as much and found things to keep herself busy. For over a month, from when my mother left until the number of infected people had dropped significantly, my grandmother did not step out of her home, not even to take a walk in the neighborhood. Instead, she walked on the balcony, where she planted grapes, gourds and flowers, and got sunlight everyday.
My grandmother used apps to order groceries that were delivered to her. She picked up new hobbies, taking online yoga classes every night before going to bed. She said she slept better now after exercising. She learned to play the Hulusi, or cucurbit flute. At first she could play only single notes, but after a month of practice, she could play a short melody.
Luckily, no one I knew was infected by COVID-19. But we learned that my grandfather’s older brother and an old family friend had died of cancer. Their families were not able to hold proper funerals or perform rituals to say goodbye to them. One family lived in the United States and could not even come back.
When I flew back home in late March, the pandemic in China was gradually easing. Now, life is starting to return to normal. Students have returned to school, offices are open five days a week and shops and restaurants have reopened with standard disinfection measures.
I couldn’t be happier to see my grandmother posting photos of her walking in the nearby park with green willows and the unfrozen lake in the background. My family is very fortunate to have stayed healthy, and we are lucky to have my grandmother with such a strong mindset and optimistic outlook during probably the most chaotic time in our lives.
Joyce Yang is in her third year of high school at Westover School, an all-girls boarding school in Middlebury, Connecticut. She grew up in Beijing, China, and is passionate about reading, writing and theatre.