By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK, March 9 (Reuters) - Precisely two weeks after receiving her second COVID-19 vaccine shot, Sylvia Baer spent the day getting an eye exam, enjoying a manicure and buying groceries at Whole Foods - a schedule that 12 months ago would have been utterly unremarkable.
Yet the 71-year-old college professor found herself on the verge of tears at, of all places, the eye doctor's office - the first time in nearly a year she had stepped inside a building that was not her own home for more than a moment.
"I was so happy," she said, recalling how exciting it was to walk into her grocery store again in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "I left with five different desserts and three different kinds of olives."
Across the United States, COVID-19 vaccinations are changing seniors' daily lives in ways large and small a year after the pandemic drove many in the high-risk group into forced isolation. Older Americans are again visiting family members, eating at their favorite restaurants and shopping in stores without fear of death or hospitalization.
The emergence of new, potentially more virulent variants of the coronavirus is causing some inoculated seniors to return to their routines with caution, however. And the weight of so many deaths among their peers, plus the psychological burden that accompanied months of quarantine, will not dissipate overnight.
This week, Linda Dobrusin, 80, will welcome three friends – all of whom have also been vaccinated – into her home in Southfield, Michigan, to restart a weekly card game of canasta on hold since last spring.
The occasion is bittersweet for Dobrusin, who lost a lifelong friend to COVID-19 last year. The pandemic made a proper funeral impossible, so she watched the small graveside service via video.
"It's hard to believe it's been a year, and yet it feels like forever," Dobrusin said.
For many seniors, the vaccine's biggest boon is allowing them to see relatives again, after missing out on weddings, births, graduations and holidays. Older Americans in particular, who often face health risks apart from the pandemic, have felt the loss of a full calendar year deeply.
Sharon Halper, 76, is scheduled to receive the second of two shots in mid-March. Two weeks after that – when researchers say the full effect of the vaccine is reached – she plans to cook a big meal and invite her grandsons for dinner at her home in Warwick, New York, including one who recently got engaged.
She intends to re-celebrate every missed holiday, starting with Hanukah and working her way back through the calendar.
"I can't wait to hug them again," said Halper, whose husband, David, celebrated his 80th birthday on Zoom.
Lonnie Hanauer, 85, and his wife, Bette, are leaving their home in West Orange, New Jersey, this week and flying to Florida to visit their daughter, whom they haven't seen since Thanksgiving in 2019. Last year's Thanksgiving holiday was the first the couple spent alone, without their children, in more than a half-century.
"When you get old, you don't know how many more," he said.
MUNDANE BECOMES MOMENTOUS
Even mundane activities have taken on new significance for vaccinated seniors.
At the Pennswood Village retirement community in Newtown, Pennsylvania, people are now permitted to sit in groups of four at tables indoors and have face-to-face conversations.
Resident Judy Yaskin, 79, hopes dining will resume in the coming weeks – no more food in brown bags consumed alone in her apartment – and events such as lecture series and movies may also return.
"Who knew that eating lunch could seem so exciting?" she said.
Some seniors are keeping certain activities off-limits, whether due to uncertainties about the vaccines' efficacy or lingering doubts after a year of worry and fear.
"I will not go to an indoor movie or an indoor restaurant," said Arlene Schimmel, a 70-year-old New York City resident. She said she would only visit with friends who were themselves vaccinated as well.
Caution remains warranted, experts say, as scientists are still studying the vaccines' effectiveness against variants of the coronavirus.
It is also unclear whether vaccinated individuals can still spread the infection to others, which is why for now even those who have received the shots should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing in public.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday released new guidelines for vaccinated individuals, saying they can safely meet indoors without masks in small groups but should still don masks in public and avoid large gatherings.
Some 60 million Americans, or 18.1% of the population, had received at least one vaccine dose as of Monday, according to CDC data. Nearly 55% of those individuals were 65 years or older.
Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, said some people might feel confused at the dual messages from public health experts: vaccines protect against serious illness, but the need for safety measures remains paramount.
But she said the novel coronavirus remains so, with researchers still learning more every day.
For many older Americans, the vaccines nevertheless have ended a sense of anxiety that had become so ingrained they did not understand how profound it had grown.
"You don't realize it until you see the finish line," Halper said. "You've got to keep going; you can't let yourself collapse. Once the lid starts coming off, it's like steam coming out of the pot all of a sudden." (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Daniel Wallis)
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