Virus magnifies the solitude for the elderly at Christmas

Rosa Otero prepares her dinner for another nightly meal in solitude.

This pandemic Christmas Eve has turned what should be a preciously scarce moment to spend time with her family into yet another daily installment of her life as a widow who lives alone.

Otero, 83, normally travels across Spain from her small, tidy apartment in Barcelona to northwest Galicia, to spend the winter holidays with her family.

But the restrictions on travel and urgings from health authorities that infections are on the rise have convinced Otero’s family to cancel their holiday plans for this year.

“I don’t feel like celebrating anything,” Otero said as she sat down to eat a plate of salmon with potatoes. “I don’t like Christmas, because it brings me bad memories. My husband died in January seven years ago. Since then I feel very alone.”

Otero is one of a countless number of elderly, mostly poor and hidden away indoors, who feel even more isolated than usual on the night before Christmas.

Otero misses the companionship of her neighborhood’s publicly run senior center that she and many others frequent to meet up with friends, have a chat, or play a game of cards. That island of society has been cut off due to the pandemic.

Just about the only link that keeps their fragile lives connected to the wider world is the local primary care clinic. Medical workers, who have born the heavy burden of battling the virus in Spain as elsewhere, have done what they can to keep up home visits for the elderly who lack the means to completely care for themselves.

The lifelong home of 80-year-old Francisca Cano has become a warehouse of miscellanea. Cano knits, does cross-stitch, makes paper flowers, and constructs collages from bits of wood, plastic and paper that she finds in the street.

The pandemic has meant that she can only speak to her two sisters by phone.

“We have missed one another these Christmas holidays,” Cano said. “As I have grown older I have gone back to my childhood, doing crafts like a girl. That’s my way of keeping the loneliness at bay.”

Then there are those whose social connections had already been erased before COVID-19 make socializing a hazard.

José Ribes, 84, is used to being on his own since his wife left him. He kept the Spanish Christmas Eve tradition of eating prawns. He shelled and ate them propped up in the bed where he has all his meals and smokes cigarettes that give his home a permanent smell of stale tobacco.

“My life is like my mouth,” Ribes said. “I don’t have any of my top teeth, while all the bottom ones are still there. I have always been like that, having it all, or nothing.”

Álvaro Puig has likewise barely noticed the impact of the virus that has deterred many families from gathering.

Puig, 81, resides in the old butcher’s shop specializing in horse meat that he ran after inheriting it from his parents. Long closed for business, the countertop where he attended customers, the scales where he weighed meat, the cash register where he rang up bills, are all intact. The walk-in refrigerator, in disuse, has become a miniature living room for his existence as a cloistered bachelor. There he watches television with his pet rabbit, which he rescued from the street.

“The solitude gets to me these days. I often feel depressed,” Puig said. “These holidays, instead of making me happy, make me sad. I hate them. Most of the family has died. I am one of the last ones left. I will spend Christmas at home alone because I don’t have anyone to spend it with.”


IMAGE: Álvaro Puig Moreno watches television while eating a his Christmas Eve dinner at his home in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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