A New Fable About Old Age


Horrific as it was, the Black Death did have some respect for the aged. Younger people seem to have been disproportionately represented among the victims, and the result was a significant aging of the population. – D. Troyanksi on the plagues of the fourteenth century

Most of those spared, like myself, are now very old, and more of us die every day. Without newspapers or printing presses, there are no obituaries. There will be no record of what we did with our lives before the Winter or after. I have no particular interest in documenting my own past. I do feel the need, however, to record how we got here, and I do have some curiosity about the future. The children seem to have no interest in the past and little in the future. Besides, I have nothing else to leave. So this is how I remember what happened, and what I wonder about what has not happened yet.

After the shortage of flu vaccine in 2004, the government made every effort to expand production; for several years things went well. In fact, the panic over flu shots in 2004 increased the number of people who lined up for inoculation on a regular basis, and the availability of vaccine permitted the government to encourage more groups to get shots. Even perfectly healthy young adults were being pushed by their employers, parents, partners, and government to get vaccinated. One result was that within five years, there was almost no outbreak of flu in the United States. Another result was that a resistant strain of the flu virus developed. The scientists were able, eventually, to adapt the serum, but there was no time to prepare sufficient vaccine for the population before that winter season. Again, as in 2004, the government limited the provision of the vaccine to the elderly, the chronically ill, and some healthcare providers. These people lined up in clinics and senior centers to get their injections, while the rest of the population once again heard lectures on hand washing and staying out of work if they did get the flu.

As it turned out, the strain that had mutated late in the season continued to mutate, and one hazy morning in late November arrived full-blown in the City of Angels, and was propelled through the massive movements of Americans at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend throughout the United States. By Monday, thousands of people were sick, and municipal governments were closing schools and offices to try to stem the epidemic. By Tuesday morning, hospitals had stopped admitting patients, and were telling flu victims to rest, drink fluids, and not to panic. On Tuesday afternoon, the government shut down the transportation system, all offices, and asked everyone to stay at home. The grocery stores were full of people in surgical masks or with handkerchiefs tied around their faces stocking up with food, kleenex, juice and whatever they could lay their hands on. On Wednesday, people started to die. The first to go were the unvaccinated elderly and children, who quickly dehydrated and succumbed. Temporary morgues were set up in most towns; communities which had not yet seen the flu break out put armed men on the routes into town. It was too late, however. The disease quickly reached all fifty states, and other than some isolated towns and ranches, it appeared that there were to be no sanctuaries. On top of that, the uninfected from the devastated areas continued to get in their cars and try to find safe havens; in almost all instances they carried their death with them and spread devastation wherever they went. For reasons that were almost impossible to assess, people who had dead at home fled their houses and gathered at shopping malls. Obviously, this spread the contagion and turned the malls into multi-story crypts full of the dead and dying.

I do not have words to tell the horror of the next few weeks, of the whole advent season. In the North, the ground was frozen and families were not able to bury their loved ones as they died; they wrapped them in blankets and left them in the snow. The last survivors died in their houses and apartments, and no one came to look for them. By the beginning of the new year, there were almost no unvaccinated people alive. Early reports (before transmissions stopped) from Asia, Europe, and South America made us realize that the catastrophe was world-wide. In the third world countries, where even the elderly were not immunized, everyone assumed that there was no one left. To make matters worse, we were in New England and there were early snowstorms. When power lines went out, there was no one to repair them.

Civilization and technology was falling apart, but science had left one last success. The vaccine had worked. Nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, assisted living homes, subsidized housing for the elderly – all of these were full of living souls. There was, however, little staff. While much of the medical staff had been vaccinated, they were dealing with ill family, friends, neighbors, and grief. Medical supplies were scarce and many of the fragile and those dependent on pharmaceutical or technical interventions succumbed. Even elderly people who had lived on their own began to gather at nursing homes and other centers where they could talk to other living beings.

The elderly were used to being apart from everyone else; many of them also had a close acquaintance with death. Apart from the few with close relatives that came to visit regularly, the tragedy did not affect them right away. In any case, the dying generally did not contact them; there was no way their elderly parents and grandparents could know whether the faces in those photos on the dresser still breathed. Two things did impact the old ones, however: the arrival of the babies and the power outages.
Apart from the vaccinated, the only group that seemed to not be mortally affected were very young babies. Infants up to about six months retained some level of immunity. Unlike the vaccinated, they often did get the flu; however, they were the only ones who recovered. Many died of dehydration and starvation in homes where there was no one to care for them, but many others were congregated in shopping malls, churches, and police stations where they were delivered by their sick and desperate parents. These sites, however, were largely morgues at this point, and not appropriate nurseries. Surviving medical personnel started moving the babies into the hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers, where they occupied lounges and hallways. Beds with guard rails that had been used for the frail, now served to prevent up to a half-dozen infants from falling onto the linoleum floors. Luckily, old folks also used diapers, soft foods, and fortified liquids, so these things were at least temporarily available. Medical personnel cleaned out the stock of such items from local stores, and – without cooks or dishwashers – everyone ate out of jars and bottles.

At first, the elderly tried to ignore the babies. This could not last long. There were not enough healthy medical personnel to take care of the demanding babes, and they were noisy. Even without their hearing aids, the elderly could not sleep with the screaming of the ever wet and hungry hordes all around them. Interestingly enough, it was the male inhabitants that first began to take ownership of some of the babies. For the men, it just seemed like a practical matter; someone needed to save the babies and stop the noise. The women, having been mothers and grandmothers, had had enough. They had lived long enough to see their children and grandchildren ignore them in their old age; they were not eager to be taken advantage of. However, two things almost always got the women involved after a day or two. First, the men – all of whom were fathers in the days when that did not mean changing diapers – had to ask for advice on all sorts of matters relating to the children. The women were in the position of being the experts and that was quite seductive. Second, the men were having such an obviously good time at it. Men who had previously only gotten out of bed for a few hours a day with the help of the aide and a walker, were now retrieving fallen babies in the middle of the night, spinning delighted children in office chairs, and warming their own concoction of baby formula (which in the evening might include almost anything they thought might make the child sleep) in a microwave oven they had never operated before in their entire lives. Men with better mobility were constructing group cribs out of the furniture in the lounges, and fashioning crude clothing out of all manner of blankets, sheets and towels. Soon, the women were out of bed too. And even the very weak, who could not get out of bed, became custodians at night and at nap time of babies who needed their warmth and the sound of their breathing.

This left the staff of the centers time to drive into town to look for food. Of course, if the power went out, the staff also had to commandeer and drive school buses and vehicles of all kinds to transport their elderly and youthful charges somewhere else. One problem, however, was that the “somewhere elses” continued to diminish. There was simply nowhere to go. In some nursing homes and almost all of the assisted living centers and retirement communities, retired engineers, carpenters, and jacks of all trades figured out ways to create heat in fireplaces and wood stoves expropriated from area houses or local stores. The able-bodied personnel installed the stoves in a rather haphazard way; firewood could be acquired by simply pulling up to the houses where it was stacked. Still, it was chill and the very frail often did not survive.

The ones that did survive, however, often thrived. As more and more of the area was without power, and even generators stopped working because fuel could not be pumped, groups of elderly men and women entered municipal offices and utility companies to see if they could figure out how to restore at least limited power. This was found to be most feasible in areas where electricity was generated by small hydraulic plants. Areas where there were wells and independent septic systems were also thought to be the easiest to manage. These were usually rural areas. Since the population was so diminished, there were regional talks with other groups as to where the easiest areas would be to “light up” and how feasible relocation would be. Areas were identified, but use of them meant appropriation of the homes, hotels, schools and all other possible living arrangements within the area. This meant, first, getting rid of the dead bodies. By sector, the corpses were brought to open areas – usually the athletic fields of schools or colleges, and piled up with wood and hay. After some kind of brief ceremony, huge fires were lit and allowed to burn down over many days. Then, groups of the elderly with one, two or three children moved into the various apartments, condominiums or homes left by the deceased. A typical group would include two or three elderly women, an old man, and two infants. Cats were tolerated to keep down the rodent populations; dogs that were lucky enough to have been freed before their masters died roamed in packs and were a problem, but there was not enough food to domesticate them. Overall, of course, elderly women far outnumbered elderly men. As regional areas set up governance councils, the women won most of the elected positions; some of the men joked that it was their turn to complain about gender discrimination.

Transportation was an issue. While cars were available everywhere, gasoline was hard to come by. The regional areas did two things to counteract this; they set up a bus system for as long as fuel supplies lasted, and they found animals that could draw wagons and carts and distributed them among the neighborhoods. In areas where there had been dairy-farming, most of the milking herds had died in the barn. Those in the field were no longer milkable, but there were enough old people who had had to get milk from cows in the old days who knew what had to be done to get them lactating. Similarly, the supply of fresh food and vegetables was long gone by the spring of that year. Everyone was encouraged to put in a garden. Groups were sent out to look at orchards and vineyards, and determine what would have to be done to bring in a harvest. Much work had to be done to keep the gardens safe from deer and rodents, but the wild dogs actually helped in this regard.

Certainly, there were disasters. Apparently, the flu took a while to completely disappear, and there were sometimes disastrous outbreaks among the older babies who were losing their immunity. Some of the elderly simply could not cope, and gave up. Others died from lack of medicine or surgical interference. However, many elders seemed to thrive. Those who had been listless from over-medication profited when such medications became unavailable. Joints still ached, but there was a good supply of aspirin at the local Walmarts and drugstores, and activity did not seem to be hurting anyone. Amazingly, most of the surviving medical personnel – almost the only young adults among the survivors – became free to do other tasks. They were not very productive, however,  handicapped by the effects of trauma and guilt. They suffered unbearable depression. Many committed suicide, disappeared, or became irretrievably despondent.

It was a strange population; there were the very young and the very old and almost nothing in-between. Because the youngest of the old were 65 – the minimum age for vaccination – and the oldest of the young were less than a year – there was a gap of two generations between them. Assuming that the younger generation needed at least sixteen or seventeen years to mature and breed, that meant that the youngest of the old had to live into their eighties, and do it while running households, solving logistical problems, and passing on the heritage of a civilization that had almost been wiped out. And so they started. The year of the flu was referred to as simply “The Winter.” No one even remembered a Christmas, Easter or Passover that year; it was simply a long period of devastation. The children, of course, were too young to mourn parents or siblings; they did not even know the meaning of a nuclear family or biological parents. They did get attached to their guardians, but usually referred to them by their first names (this may have started in the nursing home where the staff refers to everyone by their first names) and generically as the “Old Ones.” The very few young and middle-aged people who were left were referred to as the “Left Overs.” The people who had died, regardless of age, were called the “Lost.” The latter had almost no meaning for the children.

There was also another interesting phenomenon. As the children grew up, they did not talk about what they would do when they “grew up,” but rather what they would do when they were “old.” Although most children had some limited exposure to the young and middle-aged “Left Overs,” most of these were trained in medical specialties that no longer existed, and were conditioned to live in a world that was gone. They were also the group that had lost the most over the Winter – children, lovers, spouses. Their attitude towards life was not joyful; they communicated a tragic sense that the children found disagreeable. The Left-Overs exerted no confidence or authority; they were glad to serve the needs of the “Old Ones” and to accept their guidance. Children did not emulate these sad but able-bodied servants of the culture; they looked to the elderly who took care of them, directed the activities of the home and region, and who were often repositories of useful knowledge.

And now, the children are reaching puberty, and even the most able-bodied among us are beginning to die. The children are not greatly affected; they find death sad, but inevitable. They are like the old in this. But while the old may be said to have “all passion spent,” it is not clear that these children ever had any passion. In fact, they are not very emotional in any way. Last month someone came back with news that there had been a new baby born in the next region; the children were interested, but not elated. Is this equanimity better? What kind of children will they raise? Will they be glad to get old like their caretakers? Will they approach their own death with the calmness with which I know they will accept mine? Has all this led to a better world – and, if so, will it all reverse itself when the natural course of things reinstates itself over the next few generations? It was an awful thing, but I know it was good for the old. Many of us only started living again when we were forced to. I know it was good for the planet – global warming and pollution have all but disappeared, and wildlife is flourishing. However, it was a change in the order of things. It was an experiment on a tragically grand scale. I wish I knew the outcome. But I do not wish I was one of the children.