By Preston Radford, Master of Social Work Student and 2014-2015 George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Neighbors Helping Neighbors Scholar
Working with the University of Utah College of Social Work’s Neighbors Helping Neighbors (NHN) this year is a privilege because the work serves as a window into the lives of our beloved old. Through that window I witness the values of yesteryear – fortitude, resilience and self-reliance – manifest in myriad ways. The stamp of their generation’s values and strengths are apparent in their behaviors, their attitudes and their kindness toward others. They wear their values on their sleeves, one might say, just as newer generations wear tattoos.
After serving our society in important ways, from winning World War II to creating an automobile industry that would become the envy of the world, older Americans are now left to scratch meaning out of life in a society that pays lip service to what they did, before excluding them from social engagement. Too many older Americans are currently isolated in their homes, their retirement communities and their walkers. Having completed the important work they set out to do half a century ago, many appear to struggle with feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness and lack of purpose, as society collectively leaves them behind.
Some available community resources help push back against this general malaise, but they are insufficient by themselves. Take the Olympus Senior Center, for example, located on the Western foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. The center offers activities like yoga, dancing, education, economical meals and also information about services in the community – like Meals on Wheels, or patient transportation. The men and women running the center do good work, and most of their patrons appear grateful for the services, but at the end of the day many older folks return to homes of isolation and existential crises.
It is easy to empathize with the existential angst many of our older Americans feel. Economic development in America, from World War I to the contemporary, relied on the physical prowess and intellectual ingenuity of the people who were young then. They built a society that is now forgetting them. Secondly, as our addiction to youth becomes as worrisome as our addiction to oil, the problem of a youth-obsessed society appears to be getting worse – not better.
Because of progressive legislation like the Social Security Act of 1935 and the passage of Medicare in 1965, along with uncountable policy developments at the state and local levels, our elderly have, as a result, some access to resources. They can often receive healthcare and other accommodations that facilitate living longer. This social safety net for our elderly is the least we can do to repay them for everything they built for us. However, without talking about how limited and fractured this net is, one can clearly see what it does not address. That is, it does not help older Americans obtain meaningful engagement with the society they built. In essence, we thank them by keeping them alive, and then implicitly tell them we have no need for them.
One mentor in the NHN leadership has called the plight of older Americans: “The Great Separation” – which would be an honest way to frame it in future historical documentation. We’ve separated ourselves from our beloved old through: physical walls, cultural divisions, exclusionary economic practice based on scarcity, and radicalized individualism.
While some cultures find wisdom in their old by allowing them to share what they remember (lest the horrors of the past be repeated), we cut ourselves off from them – comfortably unaware in our precarious pride – and the lofty fall it might foretell. Our elderly deserve a position of influence in our society, but more importantly, we need the elderly to have positions of influence – in order to preserve our way of life.
Things to think about. Thank you for reading.