A COVID Oral History: Pandemic Different Across Generations
A COVID Oral History: Pandemic Different Across Generations

A COVID Oral History: Pandemic Different Across Generations

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’s independent readers and will have the interviews stored at the Vermont Folklife Center.

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

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

When some members of Middlebury’s EastView Retirement Community first heard about the virus, they said they did not really understand the scale of the situation until the reality of quarantine set in. How should life fundamentally change?

Susan Ring remembered the conversation she and her husband, Lawrence, had when they found out they needed to isolate themselves. Her doctor had told her, “You and Larry are now quarantined at home, you want a grocery store.” Susan remembered asking her husband, “How do you get a grocery store,” I mean, who’s heard of such a thing? “

Despite their initial shock, the Rings and other EastView residents got used to the pandemic lifestyle. They embraced new forms of interaction, especially Zoom, to get in touch with friends and family. The staff and administrators at EastView did their best to keep residents safe in isolation while keeping them engaged.

For example, the training hours shifted from collective training in a common room to stretching and exercising in the doors of each apartment, led by staff like Rachel Klatzker, who went up and down the hallways to model the exercises for each resident who participated. Klatzker, other staff, and residents settled for what they could, where they could.

Life changed in a similarly abrupt way for local teens. Like school districts across the country, the Addison Central School District switched to distance learning in March 2020. Most teachers taught Zoom, while others delivered their lessons asynchronously – packages of schoolwork delivered to children at home to be completed at their own pace. .

With this shift, some Middlebury teens felt abandoned because, with online learning, they felt separated from their friends. Without the structure provided by school, sports and other leisure activities, these young people struggled to adapt to life during the shutdown. For many, the pandemic marked the first historic crisis of their lives. How could they deal with the normal worries of teenage life beyond the anxiety caused by all the distractions and insecurities of a deadly virus?

While some teens reported feeling overwhelmed by the isolation of being at home and facing screen work all day, some retirees came to see the pandemic as just “one more challenge” in a wide range of life challenges. After all, these people had experienced significant global events such as foreign wars, other public health crises, the 9/11 attack, etc. An EastView resident put the pandemic in perspective:

LARRY AND SUSAN Ring, like most people, were initially shocked at the changes they had to make in their lives at the beginning of the pandemic. But like so many others, they got used to it.

“As more people get vaccinated, we realized at one point that we need to learn to live with this just like with measles, chickenpox or any other disease that somehow becomes an endemic.” Instead of trying to fix our energy on the virus, this senior citizen hoped that COVID would “settle into one more thing that we need to deal with.”

“It does not have to change our lives completely,” she suggested.

As the pandemic conditions of 2020 and even 2021 redefined “normal” for Middlebury teens and retirees, both groups turned to their respective communities for help. Connecting with people, more than ever, was a lifeline.

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

Fortunately, the Addison Central Teens program offered a creative opportunity for teens to hang out and be kids again. Meet twice a week throughout the pandemic, young adults interacted safely, received homework help and got in touch with friends in the teen center. Such ties to other young people have given hope to many local students.

“It feels pretty normal now … or what I’m assuming a normal high school experience feels like,” a ninth-grade student from MUHS recently commented.

With social institutions such as the teen center providing a cornerstone sense of connection, this student felt the hope of a greater sense of normalcy, no matter how long the pandemic actually lasts.

Similarly, while the need for social distance proved difficult for both residents and staff at EastView, the societal dynamics of this retirement center have shaped how they continued and reached it so far through a long, challenging ordeal. Despite the physical separation, EastView employees believed the pandemic fostered unity among them as caretakers.

Klatzker remembered how the staff adapted overnight.

“The core crew of people who have been there from the beginning, we have had to get together and learn to communicate and trust each other,” she said.

From teaching outdoor dance lessons to delivering meals when the dining staff was rock hard, the EastView staff took on what needed to be done and demonstrated their resilience daily. Even now, for Klatzker, the stress she feels about protecting the most vulnerable members of this retired population weighs heavily, but she acknowledges the community there for having hardened the worst of the situation together.

Most notable and perhaps understandable was that the young people we interviewed focused on the most immediate changes in life as they knew it, while locals from their grandparents’ generation did not. Teenagers’ remarks about the insecurity caused by the pandemic – manifested in sighs of resignation and melancholy remarks about life before COVID – conveyed their collective fear that the world would not return to the only “normal” they had ever known. In contrast, EastView residents focused on a bigger picture, understanding that sacrifice was important, but the same was holding on to the experience of life.

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

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