Love the Ones You’re With

Here in Milwaukee we’ve gotten ourselves engaged in a debate about senior centers. The county government, always strapped for cash and having put off needed maintenance for years is now looking at five aging senior centers and wondering what to do.

Senior advocates like myself and my comrades in the League of Progressive Seniors sense the beginning of the end for senior centers and so we are making noise, a lot of noise. But none of us ever really goes to a senior center. It’s not that we wouldn’t be caught dead in one, it’s just that we’re not there yet. We might never be there.

My father, widowed at 89, lived across a ball field from the local senior center.

“You should go, Dad.”

“Nah, just a bunch of old people over there.”

And at the time, I remember laughing at his reaction and being a little proud that my healthy, capable father didn’t want to be lumped in with old people but he was in fact old, very old, and lonely as only a man widowed after a 64 year marriage could be. But I reinforced the stigma of aging by basically patting him on the back for repudiating his own age peers.

The stigma of aging is profound and powerful, at its most intense when we who are old accept the stigma as valid. I’ve been struggling against that by being very public about my age and calling out ageism when I see it in conversations or social media. I want to be a role model for meaningful aging, not so much to other people but to myself, hoping my external life of action and community involvement will beat back my internal fear and loathing of my age.

“You’re not old,” a younger colleague said to me yesterday. “I wouldn’t consider you old.”

Why? Because to consider me old would put me in a stigmatized group? And you like me too much to do that? That’s sweet.

A local think tank released a study of senior centers called “Young at Heart.” To me that put the stigma of senior centers in capital letters. Of course, they think, old people would want to be young at heart because that would be tons better than being what they are – old at heart. The title felt weird and patronizing, like we were worn out adults on our way to become children again.

Even though I hang around with younger people a lot of the time, there is a great comfort and camaraderie being with people my age. We are funny and profane, wise but impatient. We don’t, after all, have all the time in the world. We understand each other’s jokes and remember the mistakes and painful alliances from years ago. We feel free and triumphant in a lot of ways but, despite that joyfulness, we are often stuck in the mud of stigma, not coming from other people, coming from ourselves.

Maybe senior centers, reimagined, could be the place where we learn to love the age we are. Maybe a different kind of senior center might have gotten my father to cross that ball field and be with people who remembered Benny Goodman and could dance a great swing. We need to be with people who know the words to Dylan’s songs and want to compare notes on anti-war protests. We’re out here. We just need some magic.

6 thoughts on “Love the Ones You’re With

  1. Patricia L Bzdusek

    I get much more satisfaction out of volunteering. I have volunteered at our local food pantry for
    the last 21 years and I shudder at the thought of quitting. I have met many wonderful people
    (mostly other volunteers) but also some clients. I look forward to going every week even though
    I only work one day a week. I have too much work to do at home to volunteer any more often.
    I’m sure the people who use the senior centers enjoy going there but they are not for me.

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  2. We would go to a center that had exercise machines (even if we had to pay a monthly fee), card games going, someone to help my husband with internet difficulties, maybe someone from Legal Aid who came in once or twice a month, book club, speakers on living healthy lifestyles, cooking demonstrations, maybe organized day trips (for a fee). We know of some people who go to the senior center for their lunch that is very inexpensive. Our friends in FL have no problem being old when they can get good deals and have fun. I am acknowledging, both emotionally and mentally, that I am old but I still want to be treated with respect and given opportunities to accomplish my developmental needs.

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  3. We have several senior centers nearby. It’s not that they are exactly depressing, but they aren’t happy either. Maybe it’s the very slim budget and lack of much in the way of activity, but they seem awfully dull. There’s no energy, not even active conversation. I’m not afraid of being old and neither is Garry. We ARE old but we are also mentally energetic, even if a bit physically slow. I can’t imagine just sitting there all day in those centers. I know many people who do, but it makes me shudder.

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  4. I drop in at a senior center occasionally, although this is a new experience for me. The other day one of the women was wearing her T-shirt from the recent Paul McCartney concert at Lambeau Field. I complimented her by telling her that it was nice to not only see someone in our age bracket wearing a rock concert T-shirt, but one not from 40 years ago but from last week!

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  5. Paula Lucey

    Excellent as usual. True leadership would not be planning FOR the citizens that the centers currently serve but WITH the citizens that the centers could serve in the future. How would I like to see my tax dollars ( very few of which go to the senior centers by the way) invested in my life in Milwaukee County. Leadership is not something that we are seeing too often these days.

    Being a highly educated, professional, well-traveled, single person, my interests are some the same as women, who worked hard and stayed home with their family but not all the same. I like to play cards. I like history. I would love to join a book club. I can’t make a pie. Hate to clean. I am caregiving for a 91 year old visually impaired parent.

    The point is that Leadership would be inclusively finding a way to capture all the seniors and get their opinions.

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