Fred Townsend, 81

"You have to learn from this, you have to think positively"

Fred Townsend turned 81 in the middle of the global pandemic.

A New Mexico native and Vietnam War veteran, Fred settled in San Francisco in 1996, and has plans to travel again after the pandemic is over, though his disability could make that difficult.

“Well, traveling in a wheelchair is very limiting,” he says, “but I would like to do more traveling. My family is scattered throughout the country and I’d like to visit them.”

He’s a contributing member of the San Francisco Grand Ducal Council, which “provides diverse areas of the San Francisco community with charitable and personal support,” and active in San Francisco’s Shanti Project’s LGTBQ Aging and Abilities Support Network, which “addresses social isolation as well as emotional, behavioral, and health challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer seniors and adults with disabilities.”

“I’ve met a lot of people through my forty years in the court system (as the Ducal Council is known),” he shares, “I’d love to get outside and rent a van with friends and get out of San Francisco and head to Washington! That would be a new state for me,” he beams. “I’d like to go somewhere I’ve never been.”

Keeping the future front of mind is a survival tactic needed in times like this, especially for vulnerable members of the population, like Fred.

“I’ve been stuck in this apartment during the pandemic,” he says, “and the walls are looking the same, and you can only empty the garbage so many times.” While staying at home — as we all know to be true — can be mentally taxing, Fred is doing his part to shelter in place. “The only time I get out anymore is to go to Safeway right around the corner to stock up on stuff.” Cooking at home and staying inside most of the time has pushed him to expand his cooking repertoire.

“Instead of more takeout I started cooking Mexican food,” Fred beams, “and it lasts for several meals.”

More good news: he was able to finally get an electric wheelchair, for which he waited three years. He now uses his new wheelchair to get to the V.A. when he needs medical attention, as the MUNI still feels off-limits to him. “I’ve had to readjust,” he admits, “but nobody is able to get out like we used to.”

Luckily, Fred navigates online communication comfortably but finds himself out of touch with friends because “a lot of them are resigned to staying at home and time just goes by.” And while he’s not able to facilitate as many charity events with the Ducal Council as he was pre-pandemic, he has helped with a few events over Zoom, including a fundraiser on his birthday (September 3) though, of course, “it’s not the same.”

While Fred has managed to stay sane, busy, and connected, he has also been at the mercy of the pandemic when he needed in-person assistance most.

“I had an embarrassing situation a couple of weeks ago,” he remembers, “where I had gone into the bathroom to take a shower, then slipped and fell. I couldn’t pick myself up! And the electric wheelchair was out of reach, so I had to crawl from the bathroom to the wheelchair by the front door and was finally able to call my friend and tell him I needed help. I propped myself up on the floor while I wired for him.” His friend arrived thirty minutes later.

“I’d love to get outside and rent a van with friends and get out of San Francisco and head to Washington! That would be a new state for me”

“That situation in the bathroom taught me I have to be extra cautious,” says Fred, “even when I go to standup out of my wheelchair.” Fred isn’t the only independent elder who has faced safety issues in his own home; many homes are not equipped with safety handles where needed or lower shelves for folks in wheelchairs — and the consequences can be costly.

Despite the mishap, Fred has been making time for a friend who comes over for a visit two days a week and helps Fred with errands or household adjustments he cannot do on his own. Fred says he’s sure “there are other people out there who need assistance” just like him.

So, what one word would Fred use to describe the pandemic? His answer surprises: “educational.”

“You have to learn from this, you have to think positively,” he says. “I’ve seen people become withdrawn and I do my best to touch base with them, I do my best to raise their spirits.”

“I’m blessed,” he shares, “between my social security and my V.A. benefits, it’s made my life very comfortable.”

All photos courtesy of: Sahara Marina Borja