The Current

This 107-year-old remembers the 1918 Spanish flu, and sees the similarities with COVID-19

In these uncertain times, we talk to seniors who have experienced similar challenges in the past, including one 107-year-old Nova Scotian who remembers the influenza outbreak of 1918. What can we learn from their experiences?

Three senior Canadians reflect on health crises they’ve experienced in the past

George Allen pictured on his 100th birthday in 2013. He is now 107. (CBC)

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At 107 years old, Nova Scotia man George Allen remembers another global pandemic: the deadly outbreak of Spanish Influenza in 1918.

"It was very, very hard dear, when your neighbours died, and other people died," said Allen, a retired Baptist minister, who was a young boy in North Sydney, N.S., during that pandemic.

"We had prayers for all those people who died," he told The Current.

"It was an awful time, something like it is now."

The CDC estimates about 50 million people died worldwide in the 1918 pandemic, including more than 50,000 across Canada.

The 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kan. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide. (U.S. Army photographer/Wikimedia Commons)

Allen remembers his mother cooking for others in the close-knit community, and going with his father to deliver meals to neighbours.

"Houses after houses were quarantined," he said. "All you could do was leave the food on the doorstep, knock on the door, and go."

Allen said that by helping others, "we helped ourselves."

"We got through it. We shared what we had with other people who hadn't anything."

Now, as COVID-19 upends lives around the world, Allen finds himself isolated and suffering the same cancelled plans as everyone else — including his 107th birthday party last month.

"It's very lonesome at this time, we can't get together with anybody at all," he said.

Watch George Allen celebrate his 100th birthday in 2013

100th birthday boy

9 years ago
Duration 2:00
Rev. Dr. George Allen is 100 years young and says he has a lot left to do.

His love of music is helping him cope, Allen added.

"I play music and listen to music, and I also read a lot of scripture."

Toy delivery for quarantined boy

When Don Robertson was in Grade 2, he caught scarlet fever and had to be quarantined for weeks at home with his mother. 

"This public health official came up and slapped a big red sign on the front of the house saying: Quarantine, do not enter," said Robertson, who is now 82 and living in Vancouver.

He remembers his classmates wrote him letters, which were delivered by a neighbour who "threw the letters over the fence and ran off."

"There was a lot of fear because at the same time I had scarlet fever, the polio epidemic was raging," he told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Don Robertson was quarantined with scarlet fever as a boy. Right, Robertson with his father, who was outside the quarantine and delivered a box of toys to his son's window. (Submitted by Don Robertson )

Even though Robertson said the quarantine was mostly a "miserable time," he has one happy memory of his father, who had been working overseas when the boy got sick, and wasn't allowed to rejoin the household on his return to Canada.

"One day he did put a ladder up to my window and there was a cardboard box that he hoisted up to my window filled with toys," remembers Roberston.

"It was just an incredible experience and a wonderful memory of my dad climbing this ladder," he said. "There was one big red truck that I hung on to for years."

Now, he's in isolation again, but using tech to keep in touch with friends and family, including plans for an Easter dinner with loved ones over a video call this weekend. 

Robertson's Grade 2 class, who write letters to him when he was ill. His neighbour threw the letters over the garden fence and ran away. (Submitted by Don Robertson)

Robertson hopes people will use this time to reflect on the kind of world they want to have when the pandemic is over — and consider what "returning to normal" really means.

"Normal for a lot of people is not normal," he said, explaining that he volunteers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where many people suffer with issues of drugs and poverty.

"When we say we're in this together as a country, which I think is evidenced in a lot of ways, [I hope] that that would carry over after we get back to this old so-called normal," he said. 

TB diagnosis meant long wait to meet parents

Immediately after Joan Maxwell was born, she was sent to live with her aunt because her parents had TB.

The plan was that she would stay with her aunt, having what she called "a lovely childhood" in Surrey, B.C., until her parents recovered.

"I used to go and visit them. I could wave from the street," said Maxwell, 72, who still lives in Surrey.

Her parents' ill health persisted — and Maxwell says she eventually met them up close, for the first time, when she was six years old.

Joan Maxwell, 72, at her home Surrey, B.C. She spent her early childhood with her aunt because her parents had TB. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Despite the long separation, Maxwell said the situation was handled well, and she wasn't left with any trauma.

"I knew the whole situation. I knew that I was loved no matter where I was," she told Chattopadhyay.

"And then when I went home, I just carried on life with my parents. It was very seamless."

Now, she's being careful in the COVID-19 pandemic, only leaving her home to shop in hours reserved for seniors, "well-armed with sanitizer." 

Modern technology is making it easier.

"I'm learning things I never knew. I now can talk to my daughter by messenger, she's right there in the room with me," she said.

For youngsters enduring their first pandemic, she had this advice.

"We just need to be kind. This is hard for everybody."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler and Anne Penman.

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