NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Florence Saperstein smiled underneath her bright pink face mask as she waved off her husband, who had offered to hold her hand while she got her coronavirus vaccine.
She’s not a big fan of needles. Thankfully, the shot only took a second.
“Well, I lived right through it!” the 89-year-old said afterward, throwing up her hands.
Her 86-year-old husband, Rudy, had already gotten his dose. He didn’t feel a thing.
The newlyweds were among many of Nashville’s older residents receiving their long-awaited vaccine on Saturday. They sat apart from the bustling crowd at Metro Public Health Department headquarters in Nashville as they were monitored in case they had a bad reaction to the vaccine.
As they waited, they chatted about how their love story unfolded in the middle of a pandemic otherwise marked by isolation and loneliness.
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When Rudy met Florence
Rudy Saperstein was as nervous as a teenage boy when he dialed up his now wife for their first date. Somehow, he and a group of his friends had “come up with her phone number” after he met her in a play.
“My hands were shaking,” he said.
He invited her to join him at the symphony, and she said yes. He wasn’t the only one with the jitters, though.
“I must’ve tried on 10 outfits,” Florence Saperstein said. “I felt like a kid.”
Rudy Saperstein had lost his wife of about 60 years, while Florence – then Wittenstein – had been married before but single for over 30 years. She swore she’d never get married again, but something shifted for her as time went on.
“I feel safe with Rudy,” she said. “Never say never.”
The pair dated for a few years and got married in a small, brief ceremony at their synagogue in October. Florence Saperstein wondered what future generations would think of the masks they wore.
“All we need is holsters and guns,” she joked.
The Sapersteins agreed navigating the pandemic with heightened risks because of their age has been no small task.
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Navigating COVID-19 has been ‘a double-edged sword’
While Florence Saperstein is a people person, her husband admits he is more of a loner. They’ve learned to balance out and support one another, but the pandemic has taken its toll.
“COVID has been demoralizing,” Florence Saperstein said. “This has not been easy. At one point, I thought, ‘I feel like I’m in prison.'”
She misses driving to different places, getting lunch with friends and taking her time at the grocery store. She also misses hugging her children and grandchildren.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “I want to get out, and I’m scared.”
Both husband and wife agreed they felt blessed to at least have each other.
“If I’d been sitting alone in my apartment, I don’t know what I would have done,” Florence Saperstein said.
Once the pandemic is over, she wants to visit her old home in New York City with her husband – just one destination on her long list of travel plans. But for now, she knows she needs to stay put. These days she’s better adjusted to how everything works.
Rudy Saperstein has an easier time accepting the pandemic’s limitations.
“You can’t change COVID, so you’ve got to make the best of it,” he said.
He misses his family, too, and folks dropping by their place. He also looks forward to sharing a nice meal out with his wife – something they have yet to do as a married couple.
The hope brought by the vaccine is part of what keeps him going. The pair are due back on Feb. 13 for their final shots.
“Life with Florence is good, so I want to keep living,” he said.
Battling loneliness and isolation
Beyond the immediate physical health risks, Dr. William Schaffner said, the psychological impact of COVID-19 has been top-of-mind for him when it comes to the elderly. He said the lack of simple human connections that come through seeing family and friends and even daily errands have been particularly difficult.
“There’s been a sense of removal, loneliness and even depression because their social interactions have been so limited,” said Schaffner, who is an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
He also said the fear of catching COVID-19 has prevented many elderly patients from coming to the doctor for emergencies and even routine checkups and flu vaccines. There has also been an uptick in deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia as those suffering had their lives upended, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Now, with a massive national coronavirus vaccine campaign underway, the challenge is to get the elderly and high-risk populations to come in for their shots.
“They need reassurance that when they get to the vaccination site, everybody will be masked, there will be social distancing and things will be handled in a manner that’s safe,” Schaffner said.
Florence Saperstein had been worried the vaccine itself was unsafe. Her husband helped calm her fears, citing the research and trials behind it. She also said seeing President Joe Biden and other government officials take the vaccine made her feel more comfortable.
“If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me,” she said.
While the vaccine will lower risks for people like the Sapersteins, it will take some time before they can get back to their normal lives, Schaffner said. He said it’s important to stay vigilant with masks, social distancing and other precautions in the months ahead while vaccinations continue.
“Once you’re vaccinated, you can think carefully about some activities to undertake that you wouldn’t have before,” he said. “Even then, continue to take care until the whistle blows or until we get scientific information that demonstrates the vaccine prevents not only disease, but infection.”
Follow reporter Rachel Wegner on Twitter @rachelannwegner
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