On nicer days, 94-year-old Grace Ilchuk steps onto her 16th-floor balcony for fresh air, and for extraordinary views of the Lower East Side and the East River. She moved into this building on Grand Street in 1961, the year it opened, and has found it a great spot to observe city life. When she looks down from her balcony these days, though, she sees six lanes empty of cars on the FDR Drive, the city sidewalks bereft of people.
Ilchuk has lived alone since her husband died in 1992. But she hasn’t been lonely; she describes her apartment as “a pretty open house” where she entertains friends and former colleagues. Before the pandemic, she would walk 480 steps – she keeps track – to Educational Alliance’s NORC, a senior center where she enjoys exercise classes and discussion groups. She would also walk to Trader Joe’s on Grand Street to shop and chat with the “wonderful young people” working there. With COVID-19 ravaging the city, however, she doesn’t leave her apartment anymore, except to take 30 steps to the garbage chute. She hasn’t seen another soul face-to-face since March 13th.
Yet she’s finding ways to sustain connections. “I have a zillion notes of what I have to do, who I have to call,” says Ilchuk, a retired third grade teacher who hears from students she taught 50 years ago, from friends made at the 1947 World Youth Festival in Prague, and from the children and grandchildren of friends who’ve died. “I get mail asking if I’m safe and healthy, and I always answer and end by saying, ‘We shall overcome.’ I feel we will.”
We tend to think living well in old age means maintaining physical health and mental acuity. But social interaction is an equally important part of aging well, argues Alan Castel, a psychologist and author of Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging.
“Cultivating relationships as you get older is incredibly important,” he says. “If you don’t have social interaction and aren’t part of a community that’s bigger than just yourself, you can be missing out.”
Ilchuk, who credits the people in her life with helping her reach advanced age, is a testament to the power of social connections. “I think you can’t survive unless you have other people interested in you,” she says.
Associated with increased rates of dementia, depression, heart disease and stroke, the public health risk of social isolation and loneliness is worse than obesity and comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, a 2015 study found. As people age, their social circles diminish. A quarter of people over age 65 identify as socially isolated, maintaining few relationships and infrequently contacting others, according to a February 2020 report.
The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened the risks. Since the lockdown, senior members of DOROT, a social service organization, are reporting increased levels of loneliness and isolation, says Executive Director Mark Meridy. “It’s important to be able to have a conversation on the phone and a Zoom call, but that doesn’t replace a hug,” he says.
Seward Park Co-op, where Ilchuk lives, is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, or NORC — a housing development not planned for older people where at least half the residents are over 60. Educational Alliance’s NORC helps seniors “age in place” by providing vital support services — including social work and nursing — and social activities, like arts and cultural programs, education and fitness classes.
For Ilchuk, it all started with a tai chi class. She began exercising at the NORC after retiring in 2000, and the center quickly became indispensable. Before the lockdown, she went three to five times a week for yoga, brain aerobics, current events, meditation, bingo, knitting — “mostly to talk, but a lot to knit” — and the occasional movie night.
In mid-March, as the severity of the public health crisis became clear, the NORC canceled programs, then shuttered completely. Staff scrambled to make sure members had what they needed at home.
“People were feeling so isolated, disconnected from each other and from the NORC, and were craving human contact,” says Kendall Hamid, coordinator of group programs and volunteer services. She restarted programs via telephone and Zoom.
Hamid is among Ilchuk’s fans: “I love her zest for life,” she says. “Whenever we put on an activity she’s there, she’s ready to go.”
She now attends meditation, current events discussions and fall prevention classes by phone. “It’s pretty unusual and wonderful,” she says.
From joining conference calls, to acquainting herself with Siri, to finally figuring out Facebook, llchuk has been adapting to life in isolation by getting more comfortable with technology, but not without frustrations. “I feel like a dinosaur in a way,” she says.
Former colleagues have told her about the difficulties of moving lessons online. “I couldn’t be doing virtual teaching in a million years!” she says, and feels a large part of her life satisfaction comes from having a career she loved. “It’s the first time I felt glad that I’m not teaching, which is a shockeroo to me.”
From kindergarten, she knew she wanted to teach. After graduating from Chicago’s Teachers College, she moved to New York City for love, it's where her fiancé, a fellow “global humanitarian” whom she met at the World Youth Festival, lived. She taught at Downtown Community School, then at Little Red School House, one of the city’s first progressive schools, for 43 years. Her late husband, Frank Ilchuk, taught music there and directed the Ukranian Leontovich Folk Chorus.
“I’ve had a very wonderful life, and wonderful, wonderful experiences with wonderful people,” Ilchuk declares, her cheerfulness belying the hardships she has encountered.
Born in Chicago in 1925 to Russian immigrants, at 8 she lost her mother to cancer. Her father, a carpenter, was out of work during the Great Depression and sent his daughter to live with family friends.
Ichuk acknowledges that her life has had “plenty of bumps," particularly the deaths of her mother, her husband, and the elder of her two sons.
“If I stayed home and thought only about that, I’m not sure I would’ve made it this far,” she says.
“If there was anybody who had reasons to be negative, it would be my mom,” says her son Daniel Ilchuk, 59, an artist and musician who lives upstate. “WWII, the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War, Korean War — you name it, she weathered it.”
Ilchuk, idealistic since youth, became active in the student movement of the early 1940s, working for peace and civil rights. “We were young, and thought we were gonna change this whole world,” she laughs. “As I’ve been dreaming about ever since. It’s not working too well, but a little bit at a time.”
Daniel marvels at how she hasn’t lost faith in humanity – even as his older brother, David, became a heroin addict and spent eight years in jail for selling drugs. His mother regularly traveled to visit him in prisons upstate.
Hamid, too, admires her resilience, especially throughout the COVID-19 crisis. “Her outlook is, ‘We’re gonna get through this, and look at all these wonderful things happening around us, despite the tragedy,’” says Hamid. “It’s amazing to be able to be that kind of person, to look at the world like that.”
Research shows that older adults, compared to younger counterparts, direct their cognitive resources to more positive than negative information, a phenomenon called the “positivity effect.” Simply put, older people tend to be happier.
“The older we get, the more equanimity the brain shows. It’s not that hardships don’t exist, it’s that you don’t mind it as much,” says Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. “Older people are more attuned to the sweet than the bitter.”
Ilchuk finds hope even in today’s political scene. “Things look grim in many ways, but you see these young kids, like Greta Thunberg, who has become my hero,” she says. “Whew, what she has done! Amazing. I have her picture up in the kitchen.”
Each weekday between 9 and 11 a.m., Ilchuk’s doorbell rings. Unseen volunteers from the United Jewish Council of the East Side drop off a meal: meatballs with mashed potatoes, apricot chicken with carrots — always with a carton of milk, a cup of juice, bread and butter.
“It’s very elegant, beautifully wrapped,” she says. “I’ve never had it so good in so many ways.”
She eats half the meal for dinner and saves half for lunch the next day, doctoring it with broccoli, mushrooms or onions — groceries that her “wonderful” next door neighbor, Mary Ellen Connors, orders for them both through Peapod, the online delivery service.
Wonderful is not only Ilchuk’s favorite word, but one others frequently use to describe her.
“She’s a wonderful neighbor to have. She’s a person who just finds the brightness in the sadness,” says Connors, who admires her self-reliance; she had to insist before Ilchuk accepted her help.
Ilchuk acknowledges that word of empty grocery store shelves has frightened her. “I remember living through WWII, and things like gasoline, butter and sugar were rationed. But we never were short of food or toilet paper,” she says.
Nor does she recall this pervasive sense of fear. Everyone knew and worried about young men serving in the military, but they weren’t afraid for themselves.
Anxiety creeps into Ilchuk’s voice as she points out that WWII didn’t stop her from taking the train to school or going out with friends. “Now, here I am in the house, alone, dependent on people outside to bring food to me, waiting for telephone calls to find out if I’m OK.”
She is rationing her Pepperidge Farm cookies.
The NORC’s meditation classes start with participants sharing how they’re feeling. People express how worried and scared they are. Not Ilchuk. “Somebody said, ‘Grace, what’s your pill?’ I don’t have a pill. I don’t know what to say, frankly,” she muses. “I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me. I just want to say that there has to be a new world a-coming.”
Though she knows it will be some time until coronavirus blows over, she believes when it does, people might behave a little differently.
“I hope people will be more thoughtful, and be as caring, warm and helpful as they are now,” she says. “I am looking for wonderful things to happen.”