A Moral Imperative and a TEDx Talk

February 19, 2016 · 10 comments

Some years ago, Susan and I went to visit one of her cousins, an older lady, at the assisted living facility she had moved into a year earlier. Unlike many seniors who have trouble keeping weight on, Susan’s cousin, who bore the faintest resemblance to Dick Butkus, had gained eighty pounds.


In a year.

Why? Because the facility where she was living fed her nothing but white carbs, three times a day, with snacks in between. Morning, noon, and night, she ate white bread, white potatoes, white pasta, white rice. Over and over again. Her processed food diet, which delighted her — who doesn’t like an endless intake of comfort food? — was ultimately nothing more than sugar, in varying forms, and nothing else, all day every day. When we went to see her, she could barely walk. I can’t recall whether or not she was a diabetic when she arrived, but by the time she left for the cemetery, I believe she was.

“At least I’m better off then she is,” this cousin said to us, pointing to a gaunt woman whose coloring could only be described as pearl gray. She sat alone, a surgical table pulled up to her chest, sipping Ensure — the first ten ingredients of which (barring water, which is number one) are sugar and fat — through a straw.

That day was a personal turning point for me; bells, lights, and whistles went off all at once. In this country — this great, proud, wonderful, modern, devout, deeply religious country — that is my home, we don’t care much for senior citizens. They’re not particularly cute and cuddly, like infants. They move more slowly, and sometimes can’t remember. They’re an afterthought, an annoyance, an inconvenience. They’re living longer — imagine the nerve — and thus they drain the system. (This is not my argument, but I have heard it repeatedly.) And so, we do everything we can to avoid them and the subject of them. By that, I don’t mean that seniors don’t show up in our political discourse; they do, in terms of social security and medicare. (These are not, as some folks like to say, entitlements; these are implementations of our human value system writ large. We take care of infants in need; if we are to call ourselves an ethical, moral society, we must take care of senior citizens. Period. WWJD, right?) 

But I’m not talking about government responsibility. Where seniors don’t show up is in our culture, and at the table. Once that assisted living facility door closes, and once that apartment door shuts, seniors are effectively removed from the world around them. We feed them cheaply, as though what they eat is simply fuel, devoid of cultural connection and sustenance. They grow isolated; they grow ill; they die, often alone, the links to their families and their communities of origin, broken.

A few years after our visit to see Susan’s cousin, I was contracted to write a book on this subject, about which I have grown passionate; I called it Beyond the Schoolyard. For months, I researched and conducted interviews; I read statistics and cohort analyses until my eyes crossed. And somewhere along the line, I came to the realization that this book wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — be about numbers; it would have to be personal, and experiential. Because the way we feed seniors — the largest, actively growing demographic in this country, with almost 50 million among our population at this moment — is a deeply personal issue. The story doesn’t start in the assisted living facility or in the apartment; the story begins at the table, in the homes of our childhoods and in the homes of our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. The story of feeding our seniors — bringing them to the table and keeping them there for as long as possible — starts at the most humane, human of places: at what the late Marion Cunningham called The Modern Tribal Fire.

Over the last year, I have written a monthly column for the Washington Post food section, called Feeding My Mother, about the vagaries of feeding an older parent — nutritionally, emotionally — who has had a peculiar lifelong relationship with the table. A few weeks ago with the help of Edible Reno Tahoe publishers Amanda Burden and Jaci Goodman, and Dr. Bret Simmons of the University of Nevada Reno, I was honored to give my first TED talk on the subject, at TEDx UNR, alongside other speakers from every walk of life and (thrillingly) both sides of the aisle — Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative — on every issue ranging from navigating the healthcare system from the point of view of a hospital CEO battling cancer, to fighting child sexual abuse, to being a football player and coach who happens to be gay. What bound us was not the fact of our seemingly disparate subjects; it was the intense humanity that plaited our subjects together. I’ll never, ever forget it (and not because I had to memorize my twelve minute talk and then deliver it in front of fourteen hundred people, without passing out).

Beyond the Schoolyard is on the shelf for the moment; I had to first finish my next memoir, Treyf, which is coming out in September 2016. But the issue of bringing seniors to the table is one that is not going away for me, nor for you. Beyond the Schoolyard will, I suspect, ultimately take a much different form, although the message will be the same: bring seniors to the table. Nurture them. Feed their souls and spirits, and you will not only nurture their hearts; you’ll nurture your own.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wendy February 19, 2016 at 12:30 pm

Elissa- I love this and thank you for sharing. My 89 year old mother eats most of her meals with us- she lives next door. And, while I get frustrated at times, I feel blessed to have her share our love of food and eating. I feel annoyed when I have to temper back the heat and the cumin (which I love and she hates) but realize she wont always be here with us so “just suck it up, Wendy.” I anxiously await the publication of Beyond the Schoolyard. A hearty “kol ha’kavod” (all the honor) for bringing the subject of feeding seniors food AND dignity to the table.

2 Anne February 19, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Brava, Elissa.
Let no senior go hungry. Senior lives matter. As I head into my senior years, I am lucky enough to enjoy cooking and eating, and I pray that I am able to continue to my dying day. Milky cottage cheese. Broccoli rabe sauteed with olive oil, garlic and red peppers. Wild rice cooked in homemade chicken stock until the grains burst like tiny pearls. Honey sweet oranges. Endive and radicchio salads with lemon and new oil. This is food and nourishment. Everything Ensure and pappy white carbs are not. Look forward to “Beyond the Schoolyard,” a most important book.

3 Stacy February 19, 2016 at 3:10 pm

My 77-year-old mother is still living on her own, independent as she wants to be and cooking for herself. She sends me photos of what she’s cooked (byproduct of a daughter who writes about food) and I send encouraging notes. I wish I could be closer but this distance is an unavoidable part of my transient life. I’d love for her to move in with us, eat with us. Maybe someday.
Thanks for the words of wisdom, Elissa. Your eloquence speaks louder than the mere words.

4 judy February 19, 2016 at 7:17 pm

You are so right. I take of my 90 year old mom and sister who has physical and emotional issues. My husband and I purchased a condo for them so that they could live near us. I shop for them, take them to their Dr. and Dental appts. They’re both strong and healthy. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even at the end of a very long week I am thankful that I am able to make their lives happier.

5 Margit Van Schaick February 19, 2016 at 11:21 pm


6 Wendy February 20, 2016 at 10:17 pm

Wonderful work! Our aging loved ones deserve to be treated with respect. We will all be seniors one day.

7 patricia harris February 21, 2016 at 9:00 pm

Thank you for the powerful ‘ come to Jesus meeting in the woodshed’ ! OUCH! I need to pay my tithes more especially the tithe of my time…to be of service to those seated around the table and more importantly to those who are not…

8 Jeana February 24, 2016 at 10:18 am

You have brought tears to my eyes. Thank you and can’t wait to read it.

9 Deborah Joy Corey October 7, 2016 at 7:34 am

Dear Elissa,
You are right on with this talk! I was raised in a tribe of foodies long before that word was coined. My father was a gather’er and my mother an exquisite cook. I have kept the tribal fire burning for my own daughters. I know now that it is a key element for keeping the desire for family to return home. Although my beloved parents are gone, my sibling and I often entice a visit from one another with a menu offering. I am Canadian and this is Thanksgiving weekend. Although, we have an event in our hometown in Maine and can’t attend, my younger brother is still calling with menu reminders, just in case. He will not give up until dinner is served. He knows THAT dinner will ease the heartaches of all who gather around it. He is a true foodie just as you are. Thank you for giving food heart! Best, Deborah Joy Corey

10 Elissa October 10, 2016 at 1:59 pm

Thanks so much–

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