Successful Aging: Should you try to be productive during the pandemic?


Q: I am 70 years old and have been retired for several years. Prior to the pandemic, my life was very active, volunteering, going to movies, entertaining friends, hosting my book group and more. Yes, Isaac Newton invented calculus and Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” while both were on lockdown. That’s a lot of pressure. I vacillate between feeling the need to be productive and get things done — learn or create something — or take the advice from articles indicating it’s OK to do nothing and perhaps it’s even healthy. Which approach is better? Thanks.  M.D.


Dear M.D.: Each of us responds differently to this pandemic and lockdown.


Let’s start with the need to feel productive which can apply to working as well as retired persons. Productivity is an American value that began in the 1600s with the Puritans valuing leisure as an activity that enabled work. Not being productive was almost sinful. In today’s business environment productivity is how much you can get done, measuring output per unit of input such as the amount of time it takes to produce something. In everyday terms, being productive suggests you are doing something of value. We are bombarded with articles reminding us that with our newly found time, we need to organize every room in our home, become an expert chef or baker and get in shape. The pressure for self-improvement and productivity is not new and most often leads to useful outcomes.


In contrast, articles have been written on the merits of doing nothing while sheltering in place. The advice is to just stop trying so hard to be productive and just be glad to get by. Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist focusing on brains and boredom (which suggests doing nothing) indicates that our obsession with productivity has made us averse to boredom. She worries that we cannot wait in a line without pulling out our cell phone and responding to texts or emails. Chronic boredom is considered unhealthy and can lead to depression, stress and even drug addiction. Our current situation is unique, to say the least. For those in later life, often no one is expecting anything from us and there is nowhere to go, at least without restrictions.


I realized moments of extra time when I started watching two Peregrine falcons raising their chicks on YouTube.  Some of us have been watching since mother falcon laid her eggs. Their progress has even been a topic of discussion among friends. I am uncertain if I would have made the time to watch the creation of a falcon-bird family pre Covid-19.

Individuals are using this extra time in ways that seem productive or meaningful and also as a time to slow down. I spoke with a 75-year-old woman who recently retired after leading two nonprofit organizations. She is using this time as an opportunity, filling her life with interesting things and enjoying the relaxed pace. She is involved with a mindfulness class, meditates every day and belongs to a social justice and also a spiritual book group. For the first time, she invited her brother for a social distance lunch in her garden. “I never would have done that pre-pandemic because I was too busy,” she said. Her plans are to continue the brother-sister lunch and her current activities.


As his business has evaporated, a 70-year-old man appreciates the time to do things he previously did not have time for; he is reading, watching television shows and returning to one of his hobbies of drawing. Unlike his friend who designed an online science course for his nephew, he feels no need to undertake a project, learn Italian or how to cook. At the moment, he is enjoying this uncommitted time. In another month, he said, “I might be climbing the walls.”


A 77-year-old man who has weight and health issues was sedentary before the pandemic yet did enjoy going to restaurants and movies.  Now, he only watches television and is frustrated since the few things he enjoyed are not available. He is doing nothing and is not happy about it. Pre-pandemic, an 80-year old man who is in good health, enjoyed playing poker with friends, going to the Farmer’s Market and casinos shared the same frustration. Both are bored with empty time not as an intentional respite but more as a result of limitations to their lives with no substitutes.


M.D., This indeed is a confusing time.  Perhaps the choice is not binary; it’s not one or the other. Rather it’s a time to experiment with what works. Consider exploring a combination of meaningful activities at a comfortable pace; be kind to yourself. Above all, stay safe and well.

© Helen Dennis.  All Rights Reserved.