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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Humanity is not negotiable
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Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

"If we are following Christ literally, then nobody's humanity is up for grabs. Nobody. This is nonnegotiable." --The Rev. Jen Hatmaker, Time magazine, August 28, 2017, page 60.  However, the following definitions show that dehumanization is as current as it is ages old.

Elder. A leader because of wisdom gained through experience and knowledge drawn from others past and present.

Elderly. One with physical and/or mental defects due to biological aging, this lack of full humanity being confirmed by forced retirement, senior moment or sexual impairment jokes, and rejection of his/her counsel.

Denial of humanity to various categories of people is not new. It is sometimes a tribal thing. The ancient Israelites denied humanity to the Canaanites and others because they were of different tribes. Moreover, as has been true throughout history, when groups compete for the same land and resources, each group defines the other as inferior, thus justifying extermination. Imagine the consternation of the Israelites when the prophet, Amos, in the name of their God, asked "Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?" (Amos 9:7)

During the period of sweeping imperial expansion by the nations of western Europe, those "different" native peoples of the globe were defined as sub-human "savages" to be conquered or enslaved. Religious authorities and scholars agreed. Lust for the riches and power of empire turned most of the inhabitants of the earth into beings denied of their humanity and sowed the seeds for today's racism in this country.

However, the transformation of older people from the elders to the elderly is a relatively new thing. How did that happen?

In the United States, in addition to tradition, there was an economic foundation for the high status of elders. Whether on farms or in businesses in town, parents were owners, children were dependents and working members of the productive system. Parents knew how to prepare the land, plant, cultivate and harvest. They knew how to birth babies, treat colic, wrest food from field and flock and turn scraps into a thing of beauty called a quilt. They were wise. They also owned everything: fields and flocks, beasts and bedding. Sons and daughters depended upon them for an inheritance at marriage. Some remained in the home and cared for parents until death when they inherited the homeplace.

Social status based on ownership of farms or mom-and-pop businesses was swept away by economic and technological change. Industrialization and urbanization changed the ways in which people made a living and disconnected masses from farms and villages, moving them to factories and cities. Fathers' farming lore was useless in Henry Ford's factories. Industrial work is fast-paced, repetitive and demanding, taking a toll on aging bodies. Therefore, retirement was born but without the security of the old farmer facing his declining abilities under the watch-care of his children.

Families' ties were sometimes severed, always weakened. Large numbers of children in the household, useful on a farm, became burdensome in the industrial world, so family size shrunk. Smaller size also meant less ability to help one another.

The impact of these and other changes upon the status and the life chances of the elders has been world changing. Farm ownership came to mean no more than shares of stock. Unless land holdings are huge, they hold no promise as an occupation for a son or daughter. As agent for his children's future, the aging farmer holds no economic clout. Mom-and-pop groceries and hardware stores are rare, most having been swept away by corporate giants.

The wisdom of the elders draws little respect. My father's rows of corn were laid out so straight and were so perfectly plowed that every neighbor could tell that his tractor had been in that field. Now tractors are guided by GPS and lasers.

Mother made prize-winning quilts, a creative craft now followed by a few as a hobby but by none as a necessary part of home-making.

He was a master syrupmaker and her kitchen was her kingdom, but neither knew anything about computers or cell phones. If still living, would they be judged as useless as mules and butter churns?

This loss of social status, respect and economic relevance puts elders at risk. Without support from community and family, they can fall from independence to dependence with any health crisis, injury or financial problem. Loss of autonomy is a terrible social and psychological blow, striking at the essence of personhood.

Assisted living facilities work well for some people, as least for some of those who can afford their services. Many cannot. Even at best, however, these require predictable order — thus rules — and rules limit autonomy, personhood.

As dependency deepens, the elderly without a strong support system are moved to nursing homes or whatever they choose to be called currently. This institution itself is relatively new, a creation of a society with a growing population of people with needs that could no longer be met at the family or community level. Some facilities seem always to be clean, served by a caring staff. I have seen some where conditions were deplorable. All deal with patients with a challenging array of problems. When state and federal governments decided to do away with mental hospitals, they left themselves with some types of patients who wind up in nursing homes. A loving God decrees that "nobody's humanity is up for grabs," but sometimes this world does not hear Him.

The elderly — or to use the slightly nicer term "senior citizens" — do not constitute a real social group. They do not assemble. From other contexts, some of them know one another but not as fellow elderly. Other than an age designation covering 40-plus years, they do not have that much in common. Still, government agencies and other people often treat them as if they were alike.

In fact, the elderly constitute a statistical category and that is depersonalizing. Many real people fit into that box, but they are not treated as people. Every statistical category ignores individuals to make it possible to deal with diversity. However, when the subject is people, not ball-bearings, categorization puts "humanity up for grabs."

Governmental rules, policies and programs deal with people as part of statistical categories. They treat the elderly as if they were alike. For example, politicians have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that it is cheaper to help family members care for their elderly at home than to institutionalize them.

Similar misconceptions are obvious in business. From the content of television commercials, it would appear that all seniors are sick, desperately needing medicine, physicians or hospitals. We are people, not a box full of sick old critters.

 

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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