In early 2004, as longtime NBC anchorman, Tom Brokaw was preparing to leave his position at the station, a series was begun to honor the World War II era citizens of our country. Those residents were dubbed “The Greatest Generation”. During Mr. Brokaw’s coverage, I began thinking about the Senior Citizens of our nation and how often, those persons in my generation do not give enough credit to the sacrifices these individuals made so that we, the Generation X crowd, could thrive and live as happily as we do. Thinking about this topic brought me back to a time in my life, now six years ago, when I learned, much too sadly, how little credit we, younger Americans, give to our elder counterparts.
In the spring of 1999, I was living in an apartment complex in Galveston, Texas. Being eighteen years old and a recent high school graduate, I was still very much in love with sunbathing and swimming and an unseasonably warm period in late March had allowed for a jump-start to the sunbathing season. The apartment complex where I lived was not large but was spread over approximately a city block and my apartment building was the farthest distance from the swimming pool.
On that particular Saturday, I grabbed my pool bag, equipped with all the essentials of sunbathing, and began the enjoyable walk in the springtime air towards the swimming pool. Given the early hour, I had free roam of the pool and chose a chair on the west side of the swimming pool which was about twelve feet and a fence away from the complex’s smallest building. Little did I realize that my choice would lead to four months of friendship and a better understanding of my grandparents’ generation.
In a downstairs apartment, behind the gated swimming pool area, lived an elderly couple named Al and Alice. In that I am friendly by nature, I waved to the couple as they left their apartment on that morning and upon their return, they stopped at the fence to question why I had waved. I found their questioning of me to be somewhat odd, but I now, very sadly, realize why. I assured them that I only waved to be friendly and the discussion that ensued left me questioning the motives of my entire generation.
Alice, being so humbled by my simple gesture of kindness, invited me into her home for iced tea and cookies. Curious as to her sudden outburst of friendliness, I accepted the invitation and joined her husband and her inside their home. The apartment was small and modestly decorated with photos of grandchildren and hand-drawn pictures that the grandchildren had designed. Everything about this couple made sense to me; the only thing that didn’t was why they were being so kind to someone who did nothing more than wave to them.
I sat on their sofa and accepted a glass of iced tea with the hope that by the glass’s bottom, I could rationalize the motive behind their kindness. As I talked with Al and Alice, I learned that both had been previously married and their blended family consisted of seven children and fifteen grandchildren. I learned that their children lived in five different states and did not have the chance to visit often, though they called every weekend.
“Were these people just lonely and in need of a friend?” I asked myself as I listened. My answer would come shortly after the thought had crossed my mind. Alice had said that she was certain I was curious as to why I had been invited into her home. I nodded in agreement. It was then that she explained why.
In early 1997, Al and Alice were walking together on the pebbled walkway that stretched from their apartment to the complex’s leasing office when Alice lost her balance and fell. Al, not wanting to leave his wife’s side and realizing she was badly injured, began yelling for help, just as a young college student was passing. The college student appeared to them, in thinking of it at that moment, to be about the same age I was then. Instead of helping the couple by going into the leasing office and getting the needed assistance, however, the student kept on walking, ignoring the pleas of a seventy year old man who longed to help his wife in any fashion that he could.
I was appalled by Alice’s story. Though I believed her tale to be true , I could not fathom how anyone in my generation could be so disrespectful to an elderly couple who wanted nothing more than a simple phone call, placed on their behalf. To me, their request did not signify anything more than a woman who was in trouble and a man who, through loving his wife, did not want to leave her alone to place the call, himself.
This generation, Al and Alice’s generation, signified the ethical and moral standards upon which many in my generation were raised and to thank these citizens for being parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and the strongest force of nurturing and love that many of us had seen, through the eyes of the college student in question, our duty was to scoff and ignore them? I went from being appalled to being very angered.
I took Al and Alice’s story to heart and began doing my own research into how the current generations view Senior Citizens. According to a worldwide study conducted in 1995 by The Australian Institute of Family Studies, seventy-three percent of the respondents confided that they cared for an elderly parent, whether in the parent’s home or in their home. Eighty-two percent of the surveyed stated that they had an elderly parent living with them or in a thirty-mile radius from them and seventy-three percent of those with parents living outside their homes admitted that they visited their parent or parents, at least once a week (AIFS, 1995).
The numbers, however, were lessened for the elderly citizens’ contact with their grandchildren. Thirty-nine percent of the respondents with grandchildren living outside the home admitted to seeing their grandchildren on a weekly basis. Twenty-four percent stated contact with their grandchildren on a bi-weekly to monthly basis and four percent claimed no contact at all with their grandchildren.
These figures do prove that the current generation cares enough to visit their families and moreover, their grandparents as schedules allow, but the question as to why so often our elderly citizens are abandoned, ignored and/or abused was still unclear.
The National Center on Elder Abuse reported in 1996 that nationwide 449,924 elderly residents over age 60 in the United States experienced some form of abuse or neglect. The survey also addressed that the cases were more common and less reported when pertaining to abuse from the elder’s children or grandchildren. With that taken into consideration, it was found that only twenty-one percent of the cases of elder abuse were reported to the appropriate authorities. (The National Center on Elder Abuse, 1996.)
For a generation dubbed as “The Greatest Generation”, it is very concerning and disturbing that society often opts to turn the other cheek to the needs of our Senior Citizens. The generation who raised us to “respect our elders” deserves much more of our respect, time and consideration and less of our jeering and ridiculing. They sacrificed their careers, their hopes, their dreams and often, their needs so that we could thrive as a society. Now that we are doing what they had hoped we would do by “thriving” and these citizens are reaching the age where they need the nurturing of their younger counterparts, we need to be returning the favor, instead of hanging these individuals out to dry. We are the products of our grandparents’ generation, however directly or indirectly, and we need to live up to the standards that they have set for us, just as they sacrificed for our needs, years ago.
As for my relationship with Al and Alice, our friendship lasted from that day and casual wave by the swimming pool through the end of the summer of 1999 when I moved from the apartment complex. Over our time together, we shared stories of our families, our friends, our lives and our beliefs and I, for one, will never be sorry for the time we shared.
I cannot say, years later, if my simplistic hand gesture restored their faith in what my generation has become, but I can say that day instilled in me a great appreciation for our Seniors and all they have seen, done and shared in their lifetimes while proving to me why Tom Brokaw was correct in his “Greatest Generation” analogy.
Never again will the world be as it was during these citizens’ lifetimes. Never again will the struggles they faced be as real or as remarkable and never again will there be a generation with the capability to conquer the obstacles with as much grace and agility as those citizens forever known as “The Greatest Generation.”
© 2005 – Jill Eisnaugle,
All Rights Reserved.