Derealization ~ Elderhood in a Time of Crisis

The DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is the manual that we use in mental health practices to assist us in diagnosing and treating mental difficulties. It defines derealization as,

“Experiences of unreality or detachment with respect to surroundings (e.g., individuals or objects are experienced as unreal, dreamlike, foggy, lifeless, or visually distorted).” (p. 302)

Our awareness of the pandemic the world is currently experiencing prompts feelings of detachment from reality in many of us.

   Gifted elders can remember other times of derealization, when the world as we knew it appeared disfigured. For example, I remember as an eight year old hearing of the news of tens of thousands of children infected with poliomyelitis and knowing that three thousand of them died that year. We saw pictures of children, captives in iron lungs that breathed for them. We observed others in braces, paralyzed by the disease. The real world seemed so unreal.

As a young adult, I watched the teletype machine at our college print out the news of the shooting and death of our president in Dallas. The nation stood transfixed for days with images seared in our memories. The pink Chanel suit, the young son’s solemn salute, the riderless horse. The real world seemed so unreal.

   Five years later and viewing the news from another continent our world was once again shocked by assassinations of the champion of civil rights, followed by the slain president’s younger brother. In 2001, a nation watched in horror the towers pierced and fallen. The mass shootings, especially the murder of innocent school children. Again and again, reality bordered on irreality.

   Yes, as elders we remember many events that evoked what a friend termed existential dissonance in our lives. Presently, we undergo another similar crisis. Similar in that we feel disconnected from an invisible enemy, a virus that may or may not be a “clear and present danger” to our lives and to those of our loved ones. This is the fodder of science fiction books and movies, of the apocalypse.

   We exclaim, “This invader should not threaten our 21st century highly advanced and technologically enhanced society!” Regardless of our unbelief and cognitive disconnect, we know that this virus is present, perhaps in our own neighborhoods and cities, and as elders we are considered the most vulnerable population. We shelter in our homes and only leave when urgent, depending on relatives or friends to supply what we need for survival.  The real is so unreal for those of us who are untouched directly thus far.

   However, there are differences between the new crisis and others that I mention here. When we heard of assassinations or terrorist actions in the past, most of us gathered with our families and friends. We formed a flock through which we could comfort each other as we processed the horrific events. We hugged. We held hands. We formed tight knit circles as we stood to pay tribute.

   Currently, all of the traditional methods of mutual comforting for gifted elders are taboo. Our youngest son lives in our community and is our umbilical cord, supplying us with any necessities. We are accustomed to hugging in greeting and farewell. Now we must maintain six feet of distance. Similarly, I lost human touch with friends in our town.

   A blessing of living in our digital age is that we can find novel ways to socialize during the pandemic. Today a friend and I drank our cups of coffee together. We were in separate houses but were able to communicate via FaceTime. Dinner with our eldest and his family in New York, including our only Grand – again via distance video. 

   We are a talking, listening, feeling, touching social species. Yet we have no idea of when we will again have the pleasure of human contact beyond the confines of our homes. My husband and I have the luxury of passing the time with each other as neither of us has shown symptoms of the virus (yet). However, there are thousands of gifted elders who live alone and have no human contact. It is time for us all to step up, to be creative, and to find ways to reassure those who are totally isolated that they are cared for and remembered.

Yes, we are living in an age when the real world seems so unreal. In our separateness, may we be unified to one purpose. May we continue to touch others with our humanity.

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This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Spring 2020 Blog Hop on “Giftedness in Times of Crisis.” I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page for their inspiration, support, and suggestions over the  decades. You can see blogs of others here.

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