A few months ago, I went to visit a home for the elderly here in New York City and I left the place feeling so sad. I should not have been right? This was a place where professionals actually took care of the elderly. I mean, the website promoted an integrated life for the elderly, good meals, visits from family members and the opportunity to go on occasional trips abroad… But still, there was something missing. It hit me when I saw an older woman with walkers stop by the front desk to tell the staff members a joke that only she found hilarious.
My earlier days were spent living in New York and even at a younger age, I noticed the difference between the way the elderly were treated here in the U.S and the way they were treated back home. Each time my family and I went for our annual vacations back to the Ivory Coast (where most of my family members are from) we anticipated what awaited us: cousins, fun and our grandmothers and grandfathers teasing us (mostly because my sisters and I had an accent when we spoke our native tongue. Oh well, so what?! Sorry, I got a little carried away there thinking about the looks of disapproval we’d get when we responded in French when spoken to in Malinke…haha. But that is another loooong story…). The fact is, our elders were always there, in their own small houses, surrounded by their grandchildren, nieces, nephews and occasional random kids who just liked their company. I had a great uncle who was well into his nineties and I remember it clearly: he would sit in front of his door and just take in everything that was going on around him. He hardly ever spoke but one could tell how content he was just to be among all these screaming children, the household drama, fights, singing and dancing, playing… things I am sure reminded him that he was still ALIVE.
Elder abuse cases sadden me. I am not sure if this is just a perception but it seems that nowadays there is a lack of respect for the elderly generally speaking (because I am sure many of still respect our grandparents). But how many times have I seen a young teenager shove passed an older woman to get a seat on the subway or disrespect an older person loudly in public? Back home we seem to value our elders’ opinions and take advantage of their life lessons and wisdom. Perhaps there are some cases of elder abuse that do go unreported in Africa, but the fact is, they are probably a lot less frequent since most of the time, family members or people who have respect for the elders are those who are tasked to care for them in the first place. It isn’t a stranger or an assigned nurse making his or her tenth round of the day.
I am in no way criticizing homes in the U.S or those that choose to put their parents in homes. We all know how crazy life gets here and some of us just have no choice. But I can’t help but imagine what it would be like if homes for the elderly did not exist at all in the U.S. We would surely see the same sense of community and ties that exists in most parts of Africa. People would have to find ways to come together and set up systems to look after each other. How great would that be?
I remember one day my sisters and I were riding in the car when the driver almost ran over a little child who had decided to cross in the middle of the road without looking to make sure there were no oncoming cars. Before this little kid even had a chance to make it to the other side, a passerby had already yanked him by the arm, given him a quick slap on the bottom and was scolding him. Needless to say it was probably both individuals’ first time ever seeing each other. My point is, even though this was not his relative or someone he knew, this man felt strongly about teaching the little boy that crossing the street without being vigilant was a no-no. If something had happened to the little boy, everyone would have felt responsible. It is that sense of community that I miss most.
I think the idea of having to create homes to take care of those who have cared for us all our lives is what disheartens me. My mom once told me that she did not want to live to be too old for fear of burdening her children. I was not pleased with the statement, but I was proud of the fact that she had automatically assumed that no one else but her children would be taking care of her in her old age. I really wish that we learn to appreciate those who are older than us, that we pay attention to what they have to tell us, that we respect them and value their opinions because they’ve been through so much and we are sure to learn a great deal from them.