Retirees kept apart by covid defy an isolated and lonely future

"Sometimes we take walks. Sometimes we go for a ride up to Lake Erie. We look at the lake for a half hour and come home."

Dustin Franz
Park Goist, 84, sits for a photograph outside Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on Sept. 19, 2020. –Park Goist, 84, sits for a photograph outside Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on Sept. 19, 202(Bloomberg photo by Dustin Franz.)

For years, the Phoenix coffee house on Lee Road was a haven for a group of old friends in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. It started when they were working, continued after they retired. They showed up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 a.m., told bad jokes and talked politics. They got out of the house.

Then came covid-19. After meeting three days a week, many of them for 30 years, the Phoenix Phellows – as they call themselves – are largely stuck at home and fighting the strains of isolation even as their Cleveland suburb begins to reopen.

“If a list was made of who was going to still be inside in September, it was always going to be us,” said Art Brooks, a retired real-estate lawyer. “Even if things are better in January, forget us. We’re still going to be locked away because we’re the ones most vulnerable.”

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As covid-19’s U.S death toll tops 200,000, the virus’ fatal toll on the elderly has been well documented. Tens of thousands have died in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. The Phoenix Phellows reveal the hidden cost, one paid by retirees still living at home who were suddenly severed from active and fulfilling lives.

The pandemic disrupted routines that had animated their post-work years, separating them from friends and family, killing travel plans and putting off-limits the places that once got them out of the house: museums, restaurants, community centers, movie theaters and public libraries as well as the odd coffee house.

Such activities help older adults live longer and stay healthier and happier, according to the National Institute on Aging. Social isolation can have the opposite effects, making seniors more vulnerable to a host of maladies, including heart disease, depression and cognitive decline.

Active seniors have largely been excluded from the discussion about reopening the economy and left to fend for themselves, structuring their own strategies to avoid risk.

At times, even President Donald Trump seems to have brushed off their susceptibility. “It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems and other problems,” he said at an Ohio rally on Monday before quickly moving on. “Take your hat off to the young, because they have a hell of an immune system. But it affects virtually nobody.”

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The virus has exposed the U.S.’s biases, according to Ashton Applewhite, 68, the author of “This Chair Rocks, A Manifesto Against Ageism.” She said Americans would have confronted the pandemic earlier if the young had been dying at the same rate as nursing-home residents did. “Older people would be dying of covid no matter what, but not in these numbers.”

Fear has not only scuttled plans for retirees; it has swelled their ranks. A survey by a trio of economists in April found that participation in the labor force declined by 7 percentage points during the pandemic, more than double the cumulative decline from 2008 to 2016. People retiring early to avoid infection accounted for almost all of that spike.

Retired or not, seniors are economic engines. Americans 50 and older accounted for more than half the $13.5 trillion in consumer spending in 2018, according to an AARP report. They purchased health care and homes, indulged in leisure and bought cars. They traveled.

The pandemic brought that activity to an abrupt stop. One small loss was the regular gathering of the Phoenix Phellows.

The coffee group began with two men who worked out at a nearby YMCA, then players in a pick-up basketball game down the street. It grew to about 15 regulars. “As people walked in and ordered something, they would get sized up as to whether they would be invited to sit down at the table,” said Joan Moore, 68, a retired housing advocate.

They were doctors, lawyers, teachers, activists, social workers, chemists, professors and engineers. Most are in their 70s, although one is 96 and two are in their 80s, including Art Brooks, one of the founders: “The idea was that there should be a third place to go, that isn’t home or work.”

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Both Brooks and Cliff Lewis – at 65 the youngest – are choral singers. Lewis is part of a ski club that travels by bus to New York ski resorts. Career coach Ann Hunter, the only member of the group still working, is an animal shelter volunteer. Former college professor Kermit Lind is active in his church. Everybody traveled.

Bob Humrick, a retired chemist who has survived cancer, had a slate of trips planned for 2020, to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. He and his wife were going to Asheville and Charlotte in North Carolina, Maine and New York. “We were going all over the place, to see friends, to do things we had always wanted to do,” he said.

Now he gets takeout coffee each day at the Phoenix, but mostly stays in. One weekend, he and his wife drove through Little Italy, a trendy restaurant district in Cleveland, to watch people at sidewalk tables doing what they couldn’t. “In a way, it was a bad idea,” he said. “It just smelled so good.”

The group misses concerts, the Cleveland Museum of Art, lectures at Trinity Episcopal Church, movies and going to the public library to browse the newspaper collection and check out books. They miss inviting people to dinner, and bemoan the need to vet guests if they do. “Like, do they have a secret college kid stashed somewhere?” said Brooks, laughing.

Ray Elsoffer, 70, hooked up with the coffee group three decades ago when he owned a vacuum repair shop down the street. Because he and his wife have health risks, they no longer see grandchildren they used to watch two days a week, or dine at their son’s house twice a month.

“The saving grace is because it’s summertime,” Elsoffer says. “I can get outdoors, do yard work. I work on a project car, a 1930 Model A Ford.”

“Sometimes we take walks. Sometimes we go for a ride up to Lake Erie. We look at the lake for a half hour and come home.”

Most said they think the virus will keep them cooped up until at least mid-2021 and probably longer. They dread winter.

The Phoenix Phellows’ youngest member brought the group to Zoom.

“We were realizing that we might not be able to meet at the coffee shop anymore, and I jokingly suggested we do it online,” Lewis said. “I was not expecting much. It’s an older group, not very tech savvy.”

About seven now meet on Zoom at 8 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a 90-minute mixture of laughter, personal updates and wistfulness. Lewis paid for the extra time, figuring it cost the same as the Phoenix’s coffee.

At a Sept. 14  Zoom meeting, Park Goist, 84, said he and his wife went to an arthouse theater for a documentary on Jimmy Carter. One other person was there.

Others were still not chancing it, including Moore, who shared a dream she’d had.

She’d awakened oddly happy, with “a feeling like when you are going to a party and you’re excited. I woke up with that feeling about covid, that it was about to be gone. Then I really woke up,” she said. “It was such a letdown.”

“Do you think we will ever go back to the Phoenix?”

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