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City Heights Senior Croons Through Lockdown

Esmerelda Sanchez, 72, keeps herself busy during the COVID-10 pandemic by sin...

Photo by Amita Sharma

Above: Esmerelda Sanchez, 72, keeps herself busy during the COVID-10 pandemic by singing, May 1, 2020.

Listen to this story by Amita Sharma.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Esmerelda Sanchez said life was full.

This 72-year-old former makeup artist, with playful eyes and blond, brown and gray streaks running through her full curly hair, lived life outside of her tiny senior housing studio in City Heights.

“I did enjoy very much going to Balboa Park,” Sanchez said. “I'd sing and play a little bit, and then I go into the senior center. I’d play bingo, usually one at least one game. And then I’d come out and I'd sing and play some more.”

Reported by Amita Sharma , Video by Andi Dukleth

The mere mention of song prompts her to reach across the table to grab her guitar and display a talent she didn’t realize she had until late in life.

”I was over 60 before I realized it was a gift,” she said. “I'll give you a sample if you don't mind.”

She launched into one of her favorite tunes: Nat King Cole’s “Smile.”

“Smile though your heart is aching/ Smile even though it's breaking/ When there are clouds in the sky/ you'll get by ... If you smile through your pain and sorrow/ If you smile through your pain and sorrow/ Smile and maybe tomorrow/ You'll see the sun come shining through, for you”

Her voice is deep and rich.

Missing her friends

Prepandemic, Sanchez regaled her neighbors and nearby children from the terrace of her apartment complex.

She made it hands-on for the young ones.

“I have a whole box of instruments,” Sanchez said. “Kids used to be able to come over and handle the instruments and play with them, you know, pretend that they're the musician. So, of course, I miss that tremendously.”

The coronavirus has dealt its most savage blows to seniors. The elderly suffer much higher rates of hospitalization and death than younger people — and with those over 65 enduring the strictest stay-at-home orders, life often feels like house arrest.

To ward off the drudgery and loneliness, Sanchez has been singing to soothe herself. She also crochets and spends time with her puppet and dolls.

But two months into the pandemic, this native New Yorker misses her friends in her complex.

“I don't hang out with my associates,” she said. “I started a group we call ourselves Queens. Queens from Queens. And we don't do that anymore. We still socialize on the phone, but we're not in the dining room. That one-on-one kind of everyday sort of thing — that’s not happening. I miss human contact.”

She’s discovered, however, that the forced solitude has helped her unlock her true self.

“I learned that I'm a survivor, I am meant to be here,” she said. “I feel that I’ve learned to love and forgive. For the first time in countless years, I spoke to a sister of mine. We speak over the phone now.”

Sanchez’s advice to fellow seniors who may be alone, depressed, ignored and anxious is simple. Get up as soon as you wake up in the morning. Make the bed. Exercise. Be self-sufficient if possible. Accept help. And reach out to others.

“That might be just the thing that keeps you from the hangman's robe or the pills or the dope or whatever foolishness that they might think is better than being alive,” she said.

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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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