Seniors and the ‘B’ Word

Published In Blog

April 14th, 2017

A long feature article that was recently published in a daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, about a local geriatrician intent on opening up a medical marijuana dispensary catering to elderly Asian American residents, sparked quite a bit of outrage from readers.

It wasn’t the bald statement that “seniors are exactly the population that could most benefit from cannabis treatment” that incited them.

Nor did they take issue with the newly-released scientific evidence cited that pot can provide effective relief for many of the ills that target seniors hardest — including chronic pain, anxiety, nausea, psychosis, and sleep disorders.

What gave older readers and their advocates cause for pause and then energized the power of their pens was a single word, repeated twice, in a graphic sidebar running within the story. It depicted what it dubbed the “growing elder burden” in the state of California, where the population of seniors is slated to rise from its current 39 million to an estimated 44 million by the year 2030. A descriptive sentence repeated the insult: “California faces a growing burden of elderly citizens . . . .”

The twice tone-deaf characterization apparently escaped the notice of the article’s author/cannabis editor and newsroom artist, to whom the sidebar was credited, as well as the editors and any proofreaders on staff at the Chronicle, the largest newspaper in Northern California, which describes itself as “provocative, energetic, unapologetic.”

Seeking an Apology From the Unapologetic

Just after the paper hit the street, I got an email message from a sharp-eyed friend, Ralph Harris, incredulity seeping into its subject line: “Elder Burden!” Ralph, who is proudly 77, is the kind of person you would describe as “feisty” if that description, too, wasn’t used too often used as sort of a comedown — as in, “he’s feisty, for his age” — rather than meaning simply high-energy and confident. Ralph wrote that he hoped the guilty parties over at the newspaper would “be more conscious in their word choice the next time and not denigrate, disparage, belittle, and deprecate a substantial share of their readership.”

To that end, he vowed to pen a Letter to the Editor. And did. In it, he pointed out the irony of running the offensively cast feature in the same issue as a column written by 83-year-old former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown exhorting people to get out of cars, cabs, and buses because “it makes more sense to walk.”

And Ralph was so incensed that he couldn’t stop himself from sending off a salvo about the seemingly growing divide between the young and old: “I’m guessing that the writer who twice used the word ‘burden’ is probably some 22-year-old who walks down the street staring at his or her smart phone while being annoyed at the older people who pay attention to their surroundings,” he wrote. “Younger people get their news from their phones, so most of the people who read the paper are feeding the hand that just bit them.”

Glen Goddard, executive director at The Sequoias, a life care community in San Francisco, was also moved to take aim against the Chronicle with his pen. Pointing out that using the term “burden” to describe seniors was “unacceptable, “ he wrote on to describe why: “One does not have to look too far to find seniors in their 70s, 80s, and 90s supporting the community in active roles as historians, consultants, musicians, board members, artists, and mentors as well as professionals who continue to work full and part time in their careers. A better choice of words would be identifying them as senior contributors or senior movers and shakers who continue to provide much needed wisdom and service to the masses.”

The Ungreat Debate

The letter writers’ feelings and fervor prompted me to do something dangerous: I Googled “seniors and burden.” The results, nestled among the latest alleged news on the Kardashian clan and political barbs and salvos, were mostly links to missives from sensitive seniors determined not to “become a burden” to their family members and others. To that end, they extolled the virtues of getting documents in order — especially those specifying the kind of medical care and final arrangements they would want.

But also churned up was an online “debate” prompted by the question: “Are the elderly a burden on society?

The public discourse was featured on the website debate.org, which bills itself as “the premier online community where intelligent minds from around the world come to debate online and read the opinions of others.”

Unfortunately, only 61 percent of the intelligent minds posting on the site concluded that the elderly were not a burden.

The anonymity of the Internet gives courage to trolls, many of whom likely write mainly to entertain themselves. And true to form, the other 39 percent, while a minority, painfully repeated the mean-spirited stereotypes surrounding seniors, and introduced some new ones.

Among their comments — typos and all:

  • They wander around clogging up the pavements whilst striking up mindless conversation with cash machines and trying to argue with self service checkouts.
  • They cant listen because they cant hear what your saying, they need a round the clock sitter so they don’t hurt themselves by falling OUT of their costly government paid scooter, need someone to feed, change and bathe them, demanding that it be done in style without so much as a thank you many times. Elderly who needed that much care used to die of disease before they became useless, but with the advent of modern medicine, they stay alive on respirators and tubefeeding. When young people want to know what happened in1920 they need not listen to an elderly persons tainted veiw but instead can get it from online sources or google. So really, what good are those kind of elderly?
  • Some do not even know their children’s names there should be a mandatory test for people past a certain age to see if they are still capable of basic tasks such as memory tests and mobility if they fail then they should be euthanized.
  • Old people do nothing and expect everything in return. They complain about minor things and cause serious problems to the younger generation. The cost of maintaining them should not be the problem of the younger generation. Older people should maintain themselves or have their children maintain their needs, not other people or society.
  • They rely almost 100% on social security and medicare. They paid into it yes, but how much do you think they paid? In the 70’s. The median pay for a high school teacher was 8 grand. SS contribution was 4%. A whopping 320 dollars was paid that year by people that receive 1,220 a month!

Why Can’t We All Get Along?

It’s a little hard to feel hopeful about what lessons can be learned from all this, but perhaps there are a few.

  • Speak up about harmful language when you see it.
  • Write unto others as you would have them write unto you.
  • And if you consider seniors to be burdens, hope for a short life. Or you’ll be next.

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