This is NOT another blog about Joe Paterno; his passing was the catalyst for it, however. No matter what transpires in the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State sex scandal trial nothing will ever wipe away the indignity and shame Coach Paterno had heaped upon him in his last few short months on Earth. It seems our society has a throw-away mentality toward our elderly population in general. Outlive your usefulness and have your looks fade and you’re outta here baby! Exit left off the stage.
Why was this frail, elderly man made the scapegoat for this particular scandal? Was he the one accused of molestation? Did he assist in the commission of these alleged crimes? Of course not. Yet there he was, at age eighty-five, fired and humiliated for all the world to see because his particular action ten years prior was not deemed exhaustive enough. This condemnation by the very same men who he reported this activity to initially! Funny, but I bet if he had another twenty or more years of use in him, the University would have somehow found another convenient scapegoat to lead to slaughter. I have no doubt that the mental stress and anguish this situation caused him hastened his rapid health decline and death.
It is scandalous how cavalierly we treat our aging population in America. It is diametrically opposed to the reverence and esteem in which they are held in China and Japan. When I was nineteen, after ‘trying on‘ various volunteering opportunities, like taking blind students bowling, and tutoring the deaf, I decided to turn my attention and energy to our forgotten elderly, and I haven’t regretted a single moment over the years. They aren’t as cute and cuddly as an armload of puppies, or a playground full of pre-schoolers, yet their gratitude at having any small bit of attention directed their way is enormous.
In NYC, I was matched with a church whose aging parishioners asked to be partnered with volunteers for all manner of needs. The first tiny lady I visited was a survivor of a concentration camp. She was a widow and never left her high-rise apartment. The world outside her flat was too fast-paced and alien for her. Her husband had handled all their finances, leaving her unable to understand bills and checking accounts. All she needed from me was help with those bookkeeping items, as she already had assistance with light housekeeping and meal prep. As the months passed, the bills and bank statements took a backseat to what she really needed, someone to listen to her stories of her life and make her feel that it all had mattered.
Her building was one specializing in the needs of seniors and I saw a flyer in the elevator for a dance to be held the following week. I encouraged Miss Annie to go. After much protesting, “What would I wear? What if the music is too loud? What if no one talks to me?”, she agreed to go. Once the decision had been made, she became as excited as a teenager attending her first prom. I couldn’t wait to hear all about it the following week. The doorman stopped me as I passed through the lobby.
“Miss, didn’t anyone tell you? Miss Annie passed away in the elevator on the way up from the dance. The couple who was with her said she had danced to almost every song, and was smiling ear to ear when she grabbed her chest and slid down the wall of the elevator. The paramedics weren’t in time to save her.”
It took one whole year to get past the guilt that I felt at encouraging Annie to go to that dance. But then I realized, would I want to die afraid, isolated, and alone in an apartment, or with a grin on my sweaty face after a dance? The answer to that got me to pick up the phone and sign up to volunteer again.
My next placement was with a woman who was instrumental in creating The Central Park Conservancy, and boy, did she have the newspaper clippings to prove it! All she required was an audience to read her clippings to her, change her lightbulbs (which required a very tall stepladder), and accompany her to the grocery store, dragging along her wheeled grocery cart. Her fears were being left alone in a dark apartment and being mugged while toting her grocery cart home. All these fears were put to rest (as well as the need for my services) when she deteriorated and had to go live with a son in Chicago.
Then came a stint visiting residents of a nursing home. In addition to the usual games of checkers, backgammon, and cards, the biggest request for my time came from folks needing help programming the VCRs in their rooms. Considering I am the most techno-challenged woman in America, this was no small feat (I can hear The Spousal Unit chuckling as we speak). Then came the reading of the newspaper obituaries, followed by the sending of sympathy cards. A sweet blue-haired great-grandmother told me one day, “Dear, this joint is all about the business of dying, but when we have visitors suddenly we have life in this place. You bring the world outside in here to us, and that is why we are always so happy to have you here.”
I don’t envy celebrities, but just this once, I would like to be one. To be able to have the star-powered clout to raise awareness of the plight of our neglected, aging population. To be able to make people aware of how far a little of their time can go in volunteering at a senior center or nursing home or simply driving an elderly neighbor to a doctor’s appointment. It just seems tragic that after a long life well and truly lived, the reward, the payoff, is being rendered helpless and dependent as a newborn.
So, the next time you see a senior in the grocery store, looking dazed and confused, or your aging neighbor is struggling to walk his dog, please don’t resist the urge to assist. Look them in the eye, let them know they are not invisible and that they matter. Swap out just one or two hours of your week that you spend watching soap operas or going to the mall for helping out these folks. You’ll be amazed at the joy that boomerangs back to you.
Feature photo image courtesy of leftfootforward.org