One morning in March, not long after the coronavirus sent her country into lockdown and brought an abrupt end to life as she’d known it, Hazell Jacobs, 86, awoke in her south London home ready to start something new.
For weeks, Jacobs, a widow living alone, had ventured no farther than her garden. Benevolent neighbors brought her groceries, and she had regular phone check-ins from her daughters and grandchildren, but a minor stroke weeks earlier had sent her into quarantine before most, and a chronic eye condition was eroding her sight.
No matter. She opened a closet and began pulling out a collection of scarves — hundreds of them, gathered over decades of travels around the world. There were countless memories stitched into their hems, each silky expanse a story waiting to be told.
Jacobs sat down and began to write what soon became Scarf Aid, a blog Jacobs has faithfully maintained since March 26.
From the starting point of a charity shop shawl or vintage Hermès wrapper, each entry weaves memoir, essay, history and travelogue in the unself-conscious style of early internet writing, while radiating the “Keep Calm and Carry On” energy of a decidedly British pep talk.
The posts dance across nearly 90 years of memories: her childhood in Brechin, Scotland; stints living in Hong Kong and California during her husband’s career as a land surveyor; her travels around the world; and outings closer to home.
“Beyond Sausalito lay Alcatraz, the former island prison, a grim grey fortress, and looming from the sea fog to the right, the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, then ahead, the incredible skyline of San Francisco,” she wrote on Easter Sunday, April 12, in a post inspired by a scarf bearing the vivid colors of a sunset over the sea. “Today, we are all in our individual Alcatraz situations, knowing what lies behind the walls, yet curtailed from escape. But, for us, we are not lifers, and freedom lies ahead.”
For 100 days, she posted daily. Ella Ward, 21, a graphic design student at Manchester Metropolitan University and Jacobs’ granddaughter, volunteered to be webmaster. Jacobs circulated the blog to friends and family members, who forwarded it to their friends, and soon the emails and comments began to come in from fans around the world: from India, Australia, South Africa, Europe and North America, all adrift in the pandemic’s uncharted waters.
Her readers, many of whom were struggling to adjust to their new reality, gave Jacobs a fresh sense of purpose. She inserted brainteasers into the posts for puzzle-loving fans and diligently researched historical facts about the places and people she mentioned. The size of her audience was modest — somewhere in the low triple digits each day — but devoted.
Jacobs is a doer by nature — she gardens, and she is teaching herself Italian. She’s also the type to seek out those in need of her help. For several years, she was a suicide hotline volunteer.
She knew that many of her readers were older adults, many without the advantages of relative good health and a supportive local network. Even some of her closest friends were struggling under the weight of isolation.
“I’m used to supporting others,” she said. “So I thought, that’ll be my role, to cheer people up,” noting that a lot her friends have felt very down.
So Scarf Aid became a lifeline of sorts. For readers, it was something to look forward to when such happenings were in short supply. For Jacobs, it gave her back something she had lost in isolation, which was the ability to take care of other people.
“I’m only choosing the happy memories,” she said on a recent Zoom call. “You don’t live to be my age and not have unhappy memories, but I’m very good at skipping over them.”
For many older people around the world, the pandemic has cast a shadow over their lives. Visits with friends and family are distanced, if they can happen at all; a trip to the doctor or grocery store can feel like a threat. Fatality rates for COVID-19 patients over the age of 70 are far higher than those of younger patients. To protect themselves, a population that already grappled disproportionately with loneliness has had to retreat even further into isolation, which can lead to depression and worse health outcomes.
“We have underestimated the importance of connectedness,” said John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Rowe made the observation Sept. 17 during an online panel on aging and the pandemic organized by the Stanford Center on Longevity.
The prevalence of loneliness among older adults, particularly in high-income countries like the United States and Britain, was a problem before the health crisis and has only worsened since.
In one survey of US adults 50 and older, 69 percent of respondents said they were self-isolating or quarantined as a result of the virus, according to AARP. Nearly half of respondents said they felt lonely at least some of the time. But the results showed an interesting trend. The older the respondents, the less likely they were to report feeling isolated, depressed or left out. Roughly 73 percent of adults 65 or older said they never felt left out of things, but only 58 percent of adults in the younger bracket felt the same. Some 52 percent of adults ages 50 to 64 said they sometimes felt lonely, but only 42 percent of adults over 65 did.
There are several possible reasons for this: Adults ages 50 to 64 are more likely to still be working while also caring for both dependent children and aging parents, and this can lead to higher stress levels. It’s also possible that the same resilience that helps people live a longer life helps them ward off loneliness and its negative health effects.
Older women who have fared best in the pandemic tend to have many of the same resources Jacobs does: access to housing, food and health care; the support of family and friends; and a sense of purpose that gives shape to the days. It’s a useful reminder of what makes the difference between solitude and loneliness, and the effect that connections, even distanced ones, have on well-being.
“It’s positive to see the different ways older people, with the support of the community and family and friends, have been helping each other pull through,” said Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK. “It is vital that we don’t forget there are many older people who are still struggling.”
When lockdown rules in Britain were eased this summer (they have since tightened after an increase in cases), Jacobs switched from blogging daily to posting weekly. And recently, as she surveyed the pile of scarves still waiting to be written about, she realized that they could serve yet another purpose: She’s sewing them into face masks.
“The time has come for drastic action,” she wrote on Aug. 30. “Scissors out!”
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