By Angela Reinhardt
Despite her not being a blood relative, dad’s stepmother Betty always felt like my biological grandmother. Mom and dad made it a point we visit frequently when I was a child, and grandma always made those visits special. She had collections of Josef Birthday Angels, one set for me and one for my sister. She’d keep them on display and add a new angel every year. We’d play Rack-O and Yahtzee. She’d make us her lemon pudding pound cake. At breakfast, she’d always give us two little glasses – one for milk, one for juice, carefully and lovingly set.
Grandma is tough, starkly independent, opinionated, and to this day one of the sharpest minds I know for someone well into her 80s. She loves to read, can entertain herself, and has never seemed to mind living alone in the 35 years since granddad passed away - but every time we’d leave her house she’d cry and squeeze us so hard it was like she was seeing us off for the last time, like we’d never come back. She’d stand at the end of the driveway in tears until our car was out of sight.
Grandma was a huge, influential part of my childhood – but I haven’t seen her in over a year. Why? Because I’m busy with my own kids and their schedules? Because I’m too tired to make the trip on my one weekend day off? We talk on the phone occasionally, but the truth is I don’t have a good reason I haven’t made the measly three-hour drive to see her in person. And this isn’t okay anymore. I want to change the kind of attention I give her, as well as my husband’s grandparents and other seniors I know who want and deserve time and companionship.
I’m 37, and in that classic getting-older fashion I think about things differently now that I’m a mother. How would I feel in their shoes? How heartbreaking to think the family you poured your love, life, and resources into for decades wouldn’t take just a few minutes to reach out, or make a short drive to see you.
No calls. No visits. Just silence.
I’d be devastated.
Senior loneliness and isolation is now being called an epidemic. According to the U.S Census Bureau, 43 percent of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis, and around a third of the senior population lives alone. Other studies show that many go days, sometimes weeks, without speaking to anyone. Isolation can severely impact mental and physical health, and bring on an earlier death, but this isn’t a surprise. Prisoners are put in solitary confinement to be punished, and they don’t come out wanting to go back in. Isolation in large doses can traumatize.
An entire generation of seniors in Japan faces “lonely death,” going days or weeks without their body being discovered because “A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births,” according to the NY Times.
In what is arguably the saddest commercial in history, German grocery store Edeka addresses the issue. We see an older man wander around his empty home and look longingly at family photos. Year after year he prepares Christmas dinners that he eats alone at a big table with empty chairs. His children are too busy to visit. As a last resort, he fakes his death to get them to come to the house before his “funeral.”
“How else would I get you all together?” he asks after he walks out of the kitchen to surprise them.
Didn’t we used to do better? Didn’t seniors get more heartfelt care and attention at one time, and didn’t we honor them and not see them as burdens?
A columnist in the Chicago Tribune calls our generation “the outsourcers of human caretaking.” Of course, the author admits, times are different – both parents often work and kids have more demanding extracurricular schedules.
Still, I think we - I think I - can do better.
My grandmother, like the rest of the eldest and wisest among us, deserve our time, an attentive ear, and affection.
They don’t deserve to be forgotten.