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Silver Threads: Marginalization of the elderly

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

The first time I ever felt marginalized was while reading a fashion story in a Saturday features section of The Wall Street Journal. I was about 70 then, and I wasn’t “old” yet; 70 is the new 60, right?

It was about hot, hot fashions, and looking at the accompanying photos, I realized the items were way above my retirement pay scale. A pretty handbag was $495, a snappy jacket $659. “I don’t belong on this page,” I thought, my feelings were a bit hurt.

Little did I know that there was more pain to come. Just before the turn of the year I am to become 80, the same newspaper displayed this B-section headline: “Your Favorite TV Shows Are Being Canceled; You’re Too Old.” I wrote a column on that one and a lot of folks were ticked off to learn about being dumped by the networks. Talk about marginalization.

That all seemed ridiculous when I thought about it more intelligently. But the fashion and TV trend stories did give me a sense of how it feels to be shut out, of how much deeper being made to seem unimportant can cut. How do women and men who can’t even buy the goods in outlet stores feel? How fare the folks who can’t get jobs, into good schools, can’t live where they would like to because of their color or sexual orientation?

As a young working woman I’d been marginalized — relegated to the fringes, made to seem unimportant — for years, because my paycheck was for only about half as much as those of the men who also worked in the newsroom. But I was in a profession I loved and — most important — had a husband who made a good living for our family. If I was marginalized, what should I have thought of the status of single working moms?

I’d been fortunate, growing up without having to worry about my rank in life. As a child, coming from a loving family in which good values were taught, I felt myself also blessed in those days as an American, a Southerner. As a cartoonist friend on one of my newspapers used the quote, “this best of all possible worlds …” I didn’t count being white among my advantages, because black lives were far out of my range of thought or experience in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Some of my friends in high school were beginning to be concerned about life’s inequalities, but it wasn’t until as a stay-at-home mom in the early ‘60s, when racial integration came to the South, that concern about human rights entered my own consciousness. I knew then that like many black mothers I’d have been on the front lines for the sake of MY children. Nobody would say they couldn’t swim in Audubon Park, go to LSU. So when I returned in 1966 to work in a slowly integrating newsroom, it was with a welcoming smile toward the new faces and a taken opportunity to form new friendships.

Today, I often find myself in an increasingly bubbling stew about marginalization; I flinch when I see a photo of a weeping Muslim mother, holding up a snapshot of a laughing, handsome son, killed in the fighting in Yemen; then turn the newspaper page and there’s a blonde woman, holding her fair-haired baby daughter in a Mother’s Day advertisement for Tiffany’s. I weep inwardly.

Those whose plight touches me most are the children photographed among the turmoil in refugee camps in Nigeria, the Middle East, with parents fleeing across the Mediterranean to Italy, protesters in Baltimore, in Ferguson. But I’ve grown old; what can I do aside from offering them a coin now and then through the altruistic agencies that call on the telephone?

This is the true “marginalization” of the elderly. It’s too late to come in from the fringes. It’s too late to run for Congress, get an M.D. and join doctors Without Borders, play for the NFL and donate millions for aid, join Habitat for Humanity, become part of the clean-up in Baltimore and Nepal.

Too late not to have regrets that you didn’t use your youth to pitch in hard to make our world a better place. The best you can do is inspire and assist others to do it.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]