Senior Scene:Surviving and thriving in the face of bias


There are three ages of man — youth, middle age, and ‘you’re looking wonderful.’

– Cardinal Francis Spellman

Do you ever think about stereotyping? I do. I never used to think about it much, but after my 70th birthday I began noticing it.

I never thought it would happen to me, but it did. Sometimes when I meet new people, they notice my age and southern origin and assume that I am a racist. If they knew that I tried to organize the world’s first lunch counter sit-in in 1959, would they still form that opinion of me? Yes, there’s a story behind that. The summer after my freshman year in college I was working near St. Louis at a Kiwanis Camp as a counselor. Two of us had the same days off, and I offered the other guy a ride. He was African-American. On the way back to camp I picked him up about noon. We were both hungry, so we stopped at White Castle. I got out of the car and noticed that he didn’t follow me. I went back to the car to ask if everything was all right. He asked me to get his order because they wouldn’t serve him.

“What?” I couldn’t believe it.

“Come on in. It’ll be OK” I said.

He shook his head firmly. That determined gesture and the look in his eyes told me that nothing I could say would change his mind. I had to accept that he knew his world better than I would ever know mine. And so, my first confrontation with cultural bigotry was a complete and total bust. He never rode with me after that.

On a lighter note, Carole and I moved here from Houston 23 years ago. To this day I suspect that some of my friends still think of me as the new guy. Carole gets to escape this stereotype because she was born here. She’s a Bugbee Brat and an OHS graduate. I say all this with my tongue firmly planted in cheek.

A book I read recently brought to mind our preconceived ideas and their effect on all of us. Read on for more about that book.

One of my personal pet peeves is technology related. I was a computer programmer for a major Wall Street company a few years after the lunch counter incident, and years before the first degree in computer science would be awarded. Our computer filled a large room and represented about one percent of the computing power that you carry in your pocket. Nevertheless, we were revolutionaries who wrung results out of our machine that our manufacturer warned were impossible. Younger people who don’t know me assume that I am technologically illiterate. End of story. (If newspapers used emoticons, a large dark cloud would appear here.)

I got the notion to write about preconceptions after reading “Elderhood, Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Redefining Life” by Louise Aronson. She is a geriatrician who stepped back to take a look at the way the health care industry treats the aged. She feels that attitudes and behavior toward older people begin with language, and so she coined the term, “elderhood.”

Aronson surprises by saying that although most of the medicines prescribed are for the elderly, most participants in clinical tests are young or middle aged. The reason for that is that the many middle aged scientists doing the testing think of the elderly as just like younger people, only with wrinkles and lots of time on their hands. It follows then that medicines sometimes produce unexpected side effects when prescribed for older people. These side effects go unrecognized because of the demographics of clinical testing; thus, physicians sometimes fail to recognize some drug-induced symptoms in elderly patients. The result is “cascading prescriptions,” that is, a drug is prescribed to counter the effect of another drug that produces another unintended consequence and ultimately leads to hospitalization or institutionalization. The author doesn’t mention this, but I believe that carefully monitoring the patient upon adding a new drug, as my primary provider does, most certainly must reduce the likelihood of the cascading prescription phenomenon.

As a sidebar to health care, Aronson mentions the social component being what many of us miss the most after retirement. Aging people need relationships, something that hospitals and skilled nursing facilities don’t always handle well. That may be why most of us aspire to age in place.

There’s a lot more in the book that will be of interest to retired people and their children, but I won’t be a spoiler.

Edmond Overbey lives in Oneonta.

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