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.
Eighty. EIGHT ZERO.
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.