Race, Eldercare, and Irony

“House of the Strange Wheelchair” photo by AndreasS, CC BY 2.0

This is not a post about writing.

Thought I should get that out of the way first. So much of the advice for authors includes recommendations not to speak on political or controversial matters, for fear of offending your potential book buying public. Well, race in America is certainly controversial. And I’m going to talk about it. At least from one narrow window and one point of observation.

You can stay and read, or not, as you prefer.

***

I am staying in my father’s independent living apartment for a few weeks while he is in rehab, as I try to coordinate the absolute chaos of what is complex geriatric medical care. But that is another essay for another time. For the first week of my stay, every TV played riot-fest 2015: all Baltimore, all the time and I can’t help but see how vast the difference is between how whites and blacks have experienced this newest cycle of murder and unrest.

You see, this place, like so many others in South Florida, is a study in racial divides. The population of residents (across independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing) is nearly 100% white, and majority Jewish, from upper middle class suburban lives. The front line staff who care for them are nearly 100% people of color. Represented at the facility where I am staying are Jamaicans, Haitians, and Dominicans, as well as African Americans from all over the South.

The often well-off elderly residents are taken care of by individuals whose skin tone would have kept them out of the manicured golf courses and tennis clubs their charges moved here from. In the course of a single day, a resident will interact, often on a close, physical basis, with more black people than they would have seen in a year, outside of TV, or service positions at their former condo communities.

And before they retired here to Florida, most of those individuals came from primarily white suburbs in communities in and around major cities in the North — NY, Boston, Philadelphia, among others, that by virtue of real estate conventions, were economically and educationally segregated.

And here they are. Being transferred, wheeled around, fed, showered, toileted, and dressed by people who were most certainly the ‘them’ to their ‘us’.

***

Some of the residents are rude. For some, it’s a consequence of mental status changes that leave them dis-inhibited and the rudeness is not personal — rather the caregivers are convenient targets. Some of the residents are nasty — entitled, with more than a smattering of white privilege and out and out racism. I’d like to think that is the smaller population. Most of the residents are polite and simply appreciative of the care they receive.

But in watching the varied reactions to the news coverage of Baltimore over the past week, I noticed a profound difference in response: Disgust on the part of the residents (white). Despair and frustration on the part of the caregivers (black). And the comments I overheard from the residents ranged from the overtly racist (including repeated references to “those” people) to the simply tone-deaf (“what was he accused of?”). Nowhere was there actual discussion or dialogue between resident and caregiver. Nowhere did I hear compassion or empathy for the victims of police violence. For those communities who have been victims of systems of inequities for generations, even as this generation of Depression-era and WWII elders benefited from society’s institutional largesse.

***

There is no doubt that I benefited from that largesse and I still continue to benefit from it. White and female and clearly ‘western’, I am not at risk for being profiled. My looks have never meant ‘threat’ to someone else. I once got pulled over for speeding on a country road in Maryland, driving my father in law’s big BMW. I couldn’t find the registration. Or my license (long story — I had moved, surrendered my NY driver’s license, but hadn’t yet gotten my PA one.) I was given a warning.

I am also conscious that while what is happening across the US will affect me, isn’t about me. Yes, I have a voice and by virtue of being a fellow human on this spinning planet, have the obligation to use that voice. In support. In solidarity. As an ally.

***

I have began to use a number of phrases, pushing back at some of the comments I’m hearing. “Have you seen coverage of the peaceful marches?” “I have friends in Baltimore, and their experience is very different.” “I hate how TV news chooses to sensationalize its coverage.”

I suspect that very little will change with my remarks, but I must make them anyway, here in this strange place where white elders and black caregivers live such intimately divergent lives.

Originally published at ljcbluemuse.blogspot.com on May 4, 2015.

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