Monday, September 24, 2007

Where have all the old people gone? - [Kristin, Urban Neighbor alum]

I am an Urban Homework Alum, I used to live in the house on 29th St. and Bryant Ave. in North Minneapolis. I got married in July, and my husband Caleb and I moved into one of the Urban Homeworks Cedar 28 condos shortly afterward. Yesterday, we decided to take a walk down Cedar to get to know the area on foot a little better. We ate at a place called Matt's Bar, a fixture in Minneapolis, famous for it's "Juicy Lucy" hamburgers, that have molten hot cheese in the middle. Then, we walked down to a new ice cream shop and each got a scoop.

On the way back we met an 88 year-old Japanese man on the street named Sam. We had seen him when we were on the way down to the ice cream shop, and it concerned us that he was still pacing the same area 45-minutes later. So we went up to him and asked him if he needed any help. (Actually, I'm embarrassed to admit, that we first tried to call 3-1-1, because we assumed the man didn't speak English. We thought it best to have a Minneapolis cop come and address the situation, but 3-1-1 was closed for the evening.) Turns out, Sam didn't need help, the house he was pacing in front of was his, and he was "just passing time". But he was desperate for conversation, and kept us engaged for a good 30 minutes as he leaned on his cane and told us story after story.

He spoke perfect English, even though a few of his words were swallowed when he would accidentally breathe in his gray mustache hairs, and his barren gums would get stuck on them. He was a strange looking man, like a older Mr. Miagi from the Karate Kid - small and thin with long gray hair and a long gray mustache and beard, overgrown eyebrows and nose hairs, no teeth, long, unclipped finger nails, a blue long-sleeved polo shirt with multi-colored stains in the center of his chest, long navy-blue polyester pants, and flannel slippers.

He told us about his time in the military during World War II, and how valuable he had been to the armed forces because he was fluent in Japanese, English and German. He told us of his childhood in Ojai, California, and of his older brothers, who were the first non-white boys to be accepted into the Boy Scouts, who have now long since passed. He told us of how he came to Minnesota, and how his Japanese-ness was seen as such a novelty in the midst of the pure-bred Minnesotan Scandinavians of the 1950s. Many of his facts contradicted each other, but he seemed so desperate for human contact that Caleb and I didn't correct him. We continued to ask him of various ways we might be able to help him - Can we call your family? Do you live alone? - but he just wanted to talk.

It made me sad to think of how many elderly people must be so lonely that all they need is someone who will listen, and how anyone - ANYONE - could take the time to listen, but we rarely do. It made me think about how they say that you can tell the moral character of a society based on how they treat the people least valuable to them - the elderly, the disabled and children. Americans are often are more willing to put money into programs for children because we see them as "our future", and we want to make sure it's bright. But what incentive is there to invest in the elderly? They have already given us their best years. They already fought our wars, developed our programs and businesses, and passed them onto us.

I thought about how special this man must have felt over the course of his lifetime, being Japanese by heritage, but American by birth - one of the first second-generation Asian immigrants to live the American dream. And then I thought about how much better off he would probably be at this stage of life, had he returned to Japan, where every September, every Japanese citizen gets a day off for "Respect the Elderly Day" and there are over 32,000 people over the age of 100.

I worry about Sam, and others like him, who are so vulnerable. There he was, shuffling in front of his house on Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis in his slippers, unaware of any danger that may come to him. How many countless Sams must exist in Minneapolis, and yet, we don't know or hear their stories. What are we, as a nation, doing for people like him? Doesn't he deserve more after how much he did for us? It's a dilemma of Urban Ministry that is rarely addressed by young, optimistic revolutionaries like us, and definitely a dilemma I need to think about more. Where have all the old people gone? How are they being valued and loved? I don't know the answers to these questions, and I should. We all should. How did they get forgotten?