Many of our guests at Bread & Roses should be enjoying their retirement right now. Instead, they walk through our doors and the doors of many other organizations in Lawrence to meet their basic needs. The elderly population is growing at unprecedented rates as the baby boomer generation hits their senior years and supplemental social security income is unable to meet the need they present.
Just under 10% of Lawrence’s population is elderly and 20% of the the city’s elderly are living below the poverty line. At Bread & Roses, that demographic is wildly overrepresented. Food insecurity among the elderly is as much a social justice issue as it is a health and economic issue. Food insecurity in senior citizens exacerbates age-related ailments as well as heightening the risk of developing a mental illness. According to Feeding America, seniors experiencing hunger are more likely to develop depression, heart conditions, and asthma. In addition, many seniors are unable to adhere to their medications, seek treatment, or seek nutrition on their own. From an economic perspective, when the aging population is not cared for properly, the cost of healthcare spins out of control.
There are several food programs nationwide whose main mission is to serve the elderly’s nutritional needs. Meals on Wheels, for example, serves anyone over 60 and other adults with disabilities at no cost, catering to individual dietary needs and even offering special meals based on ethnic backgrounds. The organization also holds meals at several locations. In Lawrence, meals are served at the Senior Center and at St. Alfio’s Villa (more information and other locations can be found here).
Integrating the elderly with younger generations has been proven effective in improving the quality of life for all participants. Aside from alleviating the mental illnesses that many senior citizens live with due to loneliness, intergenerational programming can tackle food insecurity as well. For example, a program in New York connects children at a daycare center with seniors at an assisted living home where they grow vegetables, cook, and eat together. In the process, the younger generation learns healthy living habits that will reduce their risk of malnutrition and food insecurity in the future while gaining a respect for senior citizens and their senior counterparts receive a valuable friendship that heightens their sense of self-worth, improving their overall health and quality of life.
The overriding American consensus of the value of senior citizens leaves me with many questions: At what age do we lose our worth? How old must we be for it to be acceptable to be left without food, healthcare, and, arguably most importantly, companionship? When our physical beauty fades? When our acumen diminishes? When our joints ache too much to earn a wage? When we lose our independence? Is our treatment dependent on how much money we have accumulated over a lifetime? Do we owe society our dignity in exchange for Maslow’s lowest level of needs?
The generational divide in the United States is like no other in the world. Our culture and societal expectations create a line of seemingly inherent difference between the young and the old. The stigmas unfortunately work both ways, making it difficult to find common ground and for generations to learn from each other. Agism is an issue that crosses all demographic lines, but most harshly affects those living poverty.