GROWING OLD (AND APART) IN AMERICA By Stanley William Rothstein

Many years ago my mother called her brothers and sister together to tell them their mother could no longer live alone. One of them would have to take her into their home and care for her.

The only alternative was to place her in a home for the aged. As often happens on these occasions, no one really wanted to take her, and yet no one wanted to say so openly. What my mother’s family had been taught about their responsibilities to elders was grounded in the folklore of countless generations. It was simply understood that as our parents grew older- that when they could no longer care for themselves, the burden would fall upon their children. When my mother was called upon to deal with this problem, she still had echoes and understandings of an older civilization. Honoring thy father and mother was a solemn vow. So was the pride and joy families felt when their children grew up amidst two and three generations of kinfolk. After people became too old, their children learned to blend them into their households- not only because of their love and sense of duty, but because they understood the value of a cohesive family unit. It was reassuring to know that one’s loved ones would not be forced to live out their older years in impersonal, institutional settings. Most of these ideas and values no longer hold in our society. Older people who are fortunate enough to have money are often segregated into retirement communities. Others, too many others, live out their last years impoverished and alone. As the isolation of the aged becomes more widespread, feelings of shame and guilt are more difficult to uncover. Some people even argue that old people like being by themselves; that it is only natural for them to live apart from the rest of us. The only thing most Americans have to look forward to in old age is, increasingly, a lonely, penurious existence. In some ways, this isolation of the elderly is functional in our society. New positions open up for the young. Children are taught no to be too dependent on anyone else.

The retirement communities keep older citizens out of sight and out of mind. In other ways, our declining family life and divorces can be traced, in some measure, to the callous ways we treat our older citizens. One advantage of living in households of more than one generation is the pressure it creates on young adults to honor their marriage vows.

Another is the sense of community and continuity it creates in our lives- we can learn from the experiences of others and see and come to know some of the people who helped make us who we are. Living with the elderly, it’s impossible for us not to see how the popular culture has changed; how some changes have enriched us while others have caused us to live in more diminished circumstances. Maybe the most significant thing we have lost is our sense of personal security and continuity. In the past, people were born and lived out their lives amongst familiar faces and landmarks.

Now, unless one is very fortunate, one ought not become too comfortable anywhere. We move too much in our society, and as we grow older, everything becomes strange and unfamiliar. In my mother’s time, people could still look forward to living out their lives surrounded by friends and family. Nowadays, the aged are sorted according to their bank accounts. The well-to-do are encouraged to live apart; the rest are forced to make do with meager Social Security payments. We seldom think about these things, because it is easier to put the elderly out of our minds than to accommodate them into our lives. I, for one, am unhappy over this world we have lost. No matter how some rationalize their acts by saying that “grandma will be more comfortable with people her own age,” no matter how much money is sent to maintain parents in institutions, the lesson for adults and children is clear.

Do not depend upon anyone else for your own sustenance and survival. The joys you know today will be taken from you when you grow old; you will be deprived of your right to work; and you will be deprived of your right to live your life as an autonomous person. And the faces that mean so much to you now will no longer be near; the places where you live will be unknown and restrictive. What I hope for is that we will not keep on segregating the old in the name of convenience and economic necessity; that we will not continue to teach our children to be detached and independent from everyone around them; that we will not forsake our natural impulses in the pursuit of surface harmony and greed. There is great value in living amongst our kinfolk and watching children grow in their presence.

Stanley William Rothstein is a professor emeritus at California State University, Fullerton

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress | For Free Cell Phones visit iFreeCellPhones.com | Thanks to Palm Pre Blog, MMORPG Reviews and Fat burning furnace review