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Living to Tell the Tale

They’ve been around long enough to experience some of the stories we read in historical archives—like how Filipinos peacefully toppled Marcos’s 20-year dictatorship, inspiring democratization movements in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s. Or even before that in the 1960s, when John Lennon of the massively-popular The Beatles mentioned in an interview how they were “more popular than Jesus”. Or even much more before that in the 1940s, when Japanese forces occupied the Philippines.

Now, our senior citizens, defined as those 60 years old and above, are adding another item to their list of historical first-hand experiences—the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in China last December, COVID-19 has spread throughout the planet. As of writing, there are over 13 million confirmed cases and more than 57,000 deaths worldwide. In the Philippines, the numbers continue to rise, with more than 57,000 cases, and 1,603 deaths. 

Causing major disruptions in our health and economy, the virus continues to wreak havoc and sow fear as scientists are still scrambling to discover a vaccine. And though anyone may acquire COVID-19, senior citizens are more vulnerable because of the ageing-induced changes in their body, and underlying health conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Data from the Department of Health (DOH) shows that as of April 15, 2020, more than half of the country’s COVID-19 cases and deaths were 65 years old and older. According to the 2016 Philippine Statistics Authority, 7.5% of the population are from the senior set, which means about 7.5 million Filipinos are significantly at risk for contracting COVID-19.

To better understand what our senior citizens are thinking and going through, Panahon TV introduces some of the faces and stories behind these statistics.

 

Senior Stress

Popoy Ignacio stopped driving his jeepney during ECQ.

An article published by the Cambridge University Press reveals that senior Filipinos are vulnerable to COVID-19, because of, not only of age and health conditions, but also poverty. A few months ago, Panahon TV produced a feature on 68-year-old Popoy Ignacio, a jeepney driver who lamented his loss of income during Metro Manila’s Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). “I’ve been a jeepney driver for 30 years,” he said in Filipino. “This ECQ, I lost my livelihood. There’s no money coming in. I don’t know what to feed my family.”

Antoinette Rosel is a retired psychology professor at UP Diliman.

Recently-retired Professor Antoinette Rosel of the University of the Philippines Diliman, also a senior citizen herself at 77 years old, confirms that a senior citizen’s stress level during the pandemic hugely depends on socioeconomics. “It’s financially and mentally difficult for those who had to stop earning a living.” In fact, a Philippine Senate study states that only 30% of senior citizens in the country receive a monthly social pension of Php500, while 40% receive no pension at all. During a pandemic, such lack of financial security worsens health care access and the capability to pay medical bills. 

As part of her husband’s military retirement benefits, Antoinette gets free medical checkups and maintenance medicines from the Veterans Memorial Medical Center. But because the hospital is treating COVID-19 patients, the couple has foregone their checkups, and now purchases their own medicines. “But we are still fortunate because we are both pensioners. Our stress, which I can describe as only ‘mild’, stems from not being able to go out—like in the case of my husband, who has stopped his daily walks around the neighborhood.”

Retired businessman Rody and Ping celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary in ECQ.

Simple joys are also what 80-year-old Pilar Llanera misses. “As senior citizens, our activities were already limited even before the pandemic. Now, I can’t even go to the mall or eat out.” Her husband, Rody, who’s 79 years old, used to drive to his hometown in Zambales every two weeks. To keep himself busy, he fixes and tinkers with things in his home workshop. “But when I need tools or materials, I can’t go to the hardware store. Chores like going to the grocery or the bank are now difficult to do.”

Ana Tria is a retired Maynilad employee.

Devout Catholic Ana Tria, who’s 62 years old, misses hearing mass at church among other things. “I miss going to the movies—and my father, now 90 years old, whom I used to visit in Bulacan. I’ve also missed my doctors’ appointments.”

Lito Villamarin is a retired professional photographer who still conducts photography workshops.

Though 75-year-old Lito Villamarin lives alone, he shares he’s coping well. “I guess I’m kind of a loner. I’ve been living all by myself even before the pandemic. But I do miss going out to eat. Before and during the ECQ, my children had food delivered to me.”

 

Restrictions on Seniors

By the end of April, senior citizens were not allowed to freely roam outside their residences. But do the older people think this restriction was fair?

“I think it’s okay because we’re really vulnerable,” Ping says. “Sure, I get bored but when I think about getting sick, I’m motivated to stay put.” Her husband, Rody, has a different perspective. “The government should be selective in their restriction. Some senior citizens are healthier than the younger ones. If the government can provide for those who are prohibited from going out to work, then well and good. But if they can’t, then they should let the senior workers continue earning a living.”

Lito shares the same view. “What about the entrepreneurs or managers who need to go to their workplace? In general, I agree that senior citizens should take extra precautions, but the restriction should depend on individual situations.” 

Commission on Human Rights Commissioner Karen Dumpit backs up this argument, saying such a regulation impedes human rights. “Not allowing senior citizens to go out of their homes violates their rights to life and accessibility to health. This is considered ageism because they’re deprived of their rights because of their age,” Dumpit explains in Filipino. “Age cannot be the sole determinant because not all older people are sickly. We have many healthy senior citizens.”

Ana with her daughters

Meanwhile, Ana stands by her opinion that the government should be responsible for more senior-friendly systems. “Telling us to stay home is okay, but disallowing all kinds of movement is very unfair. It felt like a punishment for us being above 60 [years old]. Certain activities should be allowed, and they should find more ways to make things easier for us. Senior lanes in banks and supermarkets are okay.”

Dr. Maria Christina Langit of the Philippine Society of Public Health Physicians encourages communities to build programs specifically for its senior members. “The community really has to step up in terms of helping senior citizens. Programs like buying groceries for them are a big help for the senior sector.”

Although Antoinette agrees that everyone, not just the seniors, are at risk, she still believes that they have to follow protocols. She quips, “Besides, our children are stricter than the government when it comes to restricting us from going out!”

 

Then there was GCQ

On June 1, Metro Manila transitioned into General Community Quarantine (GCQ). Although the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) maintained that senior citizens should stay home, they are now allowed to go out for essential activities. 

Because of this, Rody decided to get a travel pass. “I went to the barangay hall to get a permit, then to the city clinic to get a medical certificate. The doctor just took my temperature and asked me to fill out a form on my travel and medical histories. She gave me a medical certificate, which I submitted to the police station.” Because the officers were busy, Rody was asked to return the following day. “The police station was crammed with people getting travel passes,” he shares. “Everyone wore masks, but there was no physical distancing. When it rained, more people filed into the station. I was the only senior citizen there.” Rody waited four hours for his turn. “At first, the officer was reluctant about granting me a travel pass, but I told him I was healthy. Eventually, he let me go.”

Without difficulty, Rody drove to Zambales. Because the province was low-risk and under Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MGCQ), Rody savored his newfound freedom by getting a haircut and playing mahjong with his fellow senior citizens. “The feeling of helplessness that I had in Manila dissipated,” he says. 

For Lito, GCQ meant finally being able to pay his bills and buy medicines. For the first time in months, he went to the grocery, and in his excitement, bought more than he could carry. “It was a good thing that a kind stranger offered to carry my groceries to the tricycle.”

Antoinette and husband, Retired Brigadier-General Jesus Rosel

Ana has resumed her hour-long walk outdoors, and goes twice a month to the grocery. Meanwhile, a laughing Antoinette recounts how her senior friend immediately went to the salon to have her hair colored. “I think it’s okay for us, senior citizens, to go out as long as we choose our activities well, and be extra careful.” In fact, Antoinetta has finally eaten out during GCQ. “My son, her wife and I just ate pizza on the benches outside a restaurant.” 

But for all their eagerness to go out, elderly people still know their limitations. “Like everybody else, I’m afraid,” Ana confesses. “Why? It’s an unknown disease, and we’re still figuring out how to manage it.”

“Manila is crowded, and a lot of people are asymptomatic,” says Rody, “Despite feeling physically strong, I know I’m susceptible and that I have to be careful.” Lito echoes this sentiment. “The fear of contracting COVID-19 never goes away. You never know when your luck will run out.” 

 

Staying healthy during the pandemic

Every morning, Rody and Ping take long walks in their garden to get their daily dose of Vitamin D from sun exposure. Lito admits that before, he doesn’t exercise, but now makes sure he’s active. “Every day, I dance to Christmas songs because they make me happy. It relieves whatever negative emotion I have.”

Some of Lito’s negative emotions come from the anxiety of not seeing an end to the pandemic. “I know I can handle the stress, but I worry about the others. I hope they can handle the uncertainty.” Ana is worried about the pandemic’s effects on the poor, the children’s education, and social interaction. “There are so many jobless Filipinos now. What’s going to happen to our economy?” Rody and Ping worry, not for themselves, but for their family. “I won’t be able to bear it if my children or grandchildren get sick,” says Rody.

To cope with mental stress, Lito listens to meditation music before sleeping. Ana tends to her hydroponic garden, while Antoinette watches Turkish dramas on Netflix. “I think senior citizens have a lot of fall backs. We garden, read a lot, listen to music, and engage in social media.”

Rody and Ping with grandchildren

For Ping, faith is her strongest foundation. “Prayers keep me grounded. I listen to mass on the radio, and I make rosary bracelets. I think I’ve made over a hundred during ECQ.”

Antoinette, who used to teach positive psychology— defined by its founder, Christopher Peterson, as “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living”—believes in the power of laughter. “A sense of humor is vital during these times.” To combat the country’s dire situation, Antoinette encourages her fellow seniors to “make jokes and talk about funny anecdotes.”

Meanwhile, the senior citizens prove that they are not old dogs; they can learn new tricks and adapt—even to the pandemic. “You have to take life as it is,” Rody says. “You cannot wallow in a corner and be sad forever.” For Lito, the pandemic inspired him to take better care of his health. “I want to live long,” he shares. “My grandchild is only six years old now, but I want to be her first dance on her debut.”

Lito with his grandchildren in 2015

Senior citizens remind us, not only of the past with their historical knowledge, but also of our own future. If they continue balancing health risks with living their lives to the fullest, then along with stories of wars and revolutions, surviving the COVID-19 pandemic can be one of the precious tales they will live to tell future generations.

 

-with additional input from Belen Medina (88 years old), Dory Aranez (88 years old) and Robert Albrecht (69 years old)