Tag Archives: Elderly

Invisible or Invincible: A choice for seniors and for society

African American writer and thinker Ralph Ellison was describing his race-based invisibility. Those who are themselves invisible recognize the truth and relevance of Ellison’s words.   “I am an invisible man.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Bella Pollen, writing in Midnight Cactus, takes a different tack on the concept of invisibility, observing that “if America is the land of opportunity a country where perseverance and hard work is rewarded by recognition, then an illegal harbors the opposite ambitions. His great reward is anonymity, invisibility.  Aided and abetted by market forces and the laws of supply and demand, he hones the skill to stand up but make sure he’s never counted.”

Contrasting, but compatible observations that give pause.  Though Ellison and Pollen reflect on the invisibility of people of color and immigrants, those affected by the invisibility brought on by age can learn.  My instinct as a short and congenitally unprepossessing person is to weigh the safety in anonymity against the inherent challenge of invisibility.  I would simply add to the mix the parallel pros and cons of inaudibility.  As I daily confront the challenge of acute invisibility brought on by the passage of time on earth I am determined to focus on the advantages and find humor in the insults.

Nancy Perry Graham, editor in chief of AARP The Magazine, laments that “older people are invisible in society after a certain point…. It’s one of the last remaining acceptable prejudices.”   Obviously, I abhor the pain that this socially acceptable prejudice inflicts on elderly people.  Still, I believe the greater loss lies in the fact that mainstream society starves itself of the time, wisdom and experience of the elderly.

So it is with concern for wisdom lost, wry pleasure and an incurable stubborn streak that I don the cloak of invisibility

Most times I laugh inwardly and wonder within my invisible self just when it was that my own metamorphosis into invisibility transpired.  As a vertically challenged woman, I eased into the final phase.  The total transformation may have come with retirement.   Retirement means instant non-personhood, loss of professional credentials and skills and the invalidation of real world wisdom.  Though volunteers do get self-satisfaction our impact lacks legitimacy.

Then there is the Digital Divide.  Admittedly, I am a lurker.  Though I have legit access to the basic tools, I have neither the time nor the interest in the latest tweet from someone dashing off to the spa or stuck in traffic.   I spend countless hours doing research online, but choose to remain invisible and uninterrupted by yet another beep.   I actually think of meal time as a chance to dine (using my hands) and to chat with fascinating friends who are replete with ideas and stories.  Staring at and thumbing an inanimate device seems far less intellectually stimulating.

Invisibility is a daily fact in the world of commerce, of course.  I don’t shop much, but when I do I am amused by the inevitable intergenerational encounter.  The cheerleader clerk invariably looks furtively around the dressing room to see who is going to signal learn what this old lady thinks of the  garment draped on her invisible frame.  The plus side of shopping is the disinclination to buy, buoyed by the dismissive attitude of the salesperson.

There are trendy magazines with massive advertising campaigns devoted to visible people; serious publishers must assume invisibles are illiterate, irrelevant and/or just not active players in the economy.  The scourge of digital marketing is universally fixated on young consumers.  If virtual marketers don’t want to pitch to invisibles, we should be able to block those fatuous streams of commercialism; we could use the time we have left to learn something meaningful.

For invisibles television is a major source of offense/humor.   As portrayed on TV programs and/or commercials seniors are sadly visible – as frail and bumbling incompetents. (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” comes to mind.)  Sad to say, the “news” media are worse, consistently referring to the elderly in the third person and the mainstream as “we” (as in “we” the sandwich generation will some day have to bear the burden of “them,” our parents.}

The only industry that unabashedly caters to the invisible elderly is the prescription/OTC drug cabal that assumes we are insomniacs who are simply unaware that modern medicine has identified new maladies for which they alone have a pricey panacea.  Their preference for nocturnal commercials rests in part on the fact that advertising rates are cheaper than prime time;  further, should we invisible old folks happen to wake in the night, we are vulnerable to the pitch.

The medical profession as a whole is tangentially aware of our presence – could it be the Medicare payments?   Though they poke and probe the physical form, their interest ends there.  The assumption, one must conclude, is that corporal irregularities are generally linked to age and that invisible oldsters are incapable of accepting the cause or the cure.

Of course invisible elderly usually just suck it up.  Professionals who study such matters attribute this to upbringing – we’re too polite to Question Authority.  I disagree.  For me, it’s not worth the time or the energy to intervene – especially since the service provider, regardless of role, can neither hear nor see the complainant.  Consider the source, and savor yet another inappropriate encounter.

Back in the day, folks didn’t live to the age of invisibility.  They left their accumulated wealth to feed their progeny and the economy.  Those who lasted earned kudos for their wisdom and longevity.  Ancients were actually seen and heard, even honored.   One challenge today is to reposition the elderly as vital human beings who could be a resource with a contribution to make in a world that hungers for wisdom.  Still, we must first be visible.

Victor Hugo wrote: “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought.  There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.”  Truth to tell, though invisible in the labor force, the media and the economy, many invisible seniors are hard at work thinking.






Just Checking — When a PHone Call Really Matters

Will anybody call me today?

This wisp of self-doubt came from an elderly woman in response to a query about what questions she might have about life, the universe and everything.  A parish nurse who had been to visit the homebound member of her congregation shared the poignant story.  The simple question has stayed with me as I have been on t he periphery of a program called Tele-Care sponsored by Neighbors, Inc. where I have been a volunteer in recent times.

Many of us are perpetually at the ready, knowing the phone will ring any minute.  With any luck it is a friend or family member wanting to share a bit of cheer.  Or then again, it may be a salesperson, a pollster, a wrong number or, for families with teenagers….. The point in, we get lots o f calls spoken or texted on our landline, cell phone, inevitably on a Dick Tracy-style wristwatch or an implanted device.  It’s hard to hear the lonely voice of this isolated woman hoping for – and needing – a friendly phone call.

Human service providers use the term “telephone reassurance program” to categorize organizations that have structured ways to facilitate what is, in fact, a simple exchange in which a volunteer makes a scheduled call to an individual who is unable to get out of his or her home.  The caller is a phone friend, just checking to be sure the homebound person has eaten properly, taken prescribed meds on time, has enough food in the house to withstand the next blizzard, remembers to keep the doctor appointment or the visit to the hairdresser – and to spread a bit of good cheer along the way.

Of course family members, friends and neighbors make “telephone reassurance” calls all the time – it’s just that some folks, such as the woman who spoke with the parish nurse, fall through the conversation cracks.  At the same time, one source of a regular check-in, the Meals on Wheels program, has been restructured; for many, the daily drop-in by the MOW driver is yet another loss.

Spotting an opportunity, a number of corporations are promoting pricey “telephone reassurance” products and services to vulnerable adults and their concerned families.  For generous volunteers, a lonely senior or disabled person is a neighbor who needs a helping hand.  For others, that same homebound person is a source of easy income – robo-calls are cheap.

Volunteer programs such as Neighbors’ Tele-Care are no cost to the recipient for whom a daily phone call is both a day brightener and a safety net.  Generous – and chatty – volunteers enjoy t he program as much as the individuals who get the call.  Some say they appreciate the structure that a scheduled call adds to their day.  In many cases, friendships blossom and bear fruit.

Neighbors’ Tele-Care is one of countless low-cost/high impact programs hosted by nonprofits and faith communities.  It happens to be the one with which I have experience.

My thought is to share the concept, not any specific program.  Connecting a lonely person with a program such as Tele-Care would make a thoughtful holiday gift – one that truly deserves the tagline “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Neighbors’ Tele-Care program is open to all who live in the seven-county metro area.  For more information, check the Neighbors website or call Tele-Care at 651 306-1408 or info@neighborsmn.org.

Making Something of the World – by Night and by Day


Emily Bronte reminded us that “a person who has not done one half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.”  When I thought of that wise observation about 4:00 a.m. this morning I was more in a mood to ruminate than to face anything more strenuous on another hot July day.

Rumination led me to ponder one of the subtle and unsung joys of aging, the fact that, for the many older folks, liberated from the rigors of the workplace, a short night’s sleep offers a quick dip into a mental idea factory and a chance to draft a plan for what the new day promises.  For these early risers the work of the day is a challenge, better conquered by mid-morning as Bronte suggests.  Visions of projects and possibilities literally dance through their heads!”

Heraclitus got it right when he observed that “even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work and helps make something of the world.”  (Fragments)   A night spent dreaming about ways to “make something of the world” leads to a morning shaped by high energy that trumps ennui any day.

Early risers of an age know that birds waking, a bit of sunshine and the sounds of a city on the move obviate the necessity of pre-dawn interruptions by a rude alarm clock or a blaring radio.   Nature itself softens the blow of another day by allowing time to review whacky dreams and get about the fun of formulating a day’s agenda that favors creative thinking and human interaction over drudgery.   More waking hours allow for a happy mix of routine and escape.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the fact that most folks cannot see short nights and long days as to luxury to be savored. Those who are in their prime have jobs with insatiable deadlines and irritating co-workers — or they face a day of search for gainful employment in a harsh economy.   Been there, done that.  It’s those decades of rise and run that make me relish the deliciousness of a soft waking from a night of respite that features the work of physical restoration and mental reflection on wyas “to make something of the world.”.

The truth is, positioning short nights and long days in a positive light is just my persistent struggle to put the best face on aging, to see the rhythm of the day as liberating.  And to get at least half of the day’s work done by ten, lest I run the risk of leaving the other half undone.

On really good mornings I start the day with a nod to Christopher Robin’s delightful puzzlement:  “Now, how to amuse them to-day?”  It sets a tone.