Monday, August 08, 2005

America. F--- Yeah.

You know, it's not the macrolevel policies, the bloviating political bigwigs or the embarrassing international behavior of the country that really get to me. It's something much smaller, something relegated to the shadows and gutters of our national consciousness, as embodied by today's grocery store trip.

We're housesitting in the Maple Leaf area right now, a north Seattle neighborhood where homes are slightly more affordable than their centrally located neighborhood. (Read: you can purchase a 2-bedroom for under $400,000 instead of half a mil.) Consequently, it's populated predominantly by young homeowners, minority families and elderly residents from the area's half dozen retirement centers. It's more diverse and less affluent than most of the neighborhoods just north of downtown.

As a result, you can walk into the local grocery store on any given night and actually see (gasp!) people from multiple age groups. I love Seattle, but we aren't exactly teeming with diversity, at least when compared to other places I've visited or lived. Or, maybe we're diverse but fragmented...but I digress.

I turned the corner to the produce section and heard a clattering to my right. Before rows of dully waxed apples in faux straw-filled crates, an elderly man was wrestling to place his foldable walker beneath his grocery cart. He was extremely frail and gaunt, stooped from the back to the shoulders like the bow of a weighted fishing pole. Arthritis had wrenched his knuckles and fingers into sharp angles. He was alone in the middle of the brightly lit section, pushing at the flat skeleton of his walker as it dragged against the floor. All around, people passed by with baskets in hand. No one even glanced at him.

I helped him move the walker onto the bottom of the cart, and we went through the awkward routine that always follows. Thank you, even though I feel worse because I needed your help. At least you noticed me. You're welcome, but I'm a coward because I'm not going to ask if I should stay to help you shop. I'm sorry. For everything.

I don't think there was anyone waiting for him outside. There's no way he could have driven a car. The nearest bus was a block and a half away, and it only ran every half hour after 9pm.

You can call me a bleeding heart, but here's the deal: I wanted to cry when I left, and I've been thinking about him all night. I hate the way we treat our elders in this country. They nurture us and prepare the way for our success, and we thank them by leaving them to die unnoticed and alone. If you're rich, you'll hire personal caretakers who can help around the house, and you will pay off your mortgage before you have to stop working. If you're like everyone else, you'll be lucky to escape the dank hallways of dismal nursing homes; you'll be living pretty well if you eke out a living off food stamps and long bus rides to the grocery store.

(Coincidentally, there's a very powerful piece out right now, written by a physician whose father is going through the end of his life. You can find it here, but I wouldn't recommend reading it if you are feeling at all down, or possibly if you're going through something similar. It's a tough read.)

I wish our culture placed greater value on family connections. I don't see any political leaders on either side who campaign vigorously to help families care for each other in their twilight years. No one with power advocates extended leaves of absence for people who need to help their parents or grandparents, nor do they offer tax breaks so families can hire nurses' aides to help. So we're forced into nursing homes, hospitals and hospices while our families suffer the combined mix of guilt, burnout and exhaustion. It infuriates me.

If anything ever happens to anyone in my family, I will do whatever it takes to be there for them. It scares me to think that might not be enough - I might lack the finances, medical knowledge or emotional wherewithal to see it through. I wish things were different. Seriously, if I ever miraculously publish a book that sells, part of the earnings will go towards services for the elderly. We're all going to be there someday, even a handful of the high and mighty who think they can buy their way out of anything. If for no other reason than pure self-interest, you'd think we'd want to change the way we value our predecessors.

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