Older Americans Month: Deconstructing the Stereotype

May is “Older Americans Month,” designated in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, who said, “Our seniors deserve the best our country has to offer.” At the time about a third of seniors were living in poverty. In more than half a century, that hasn’t changed much. Unfortunately, seniors, like every other generation, could be celebrating the “National Short End of the Stick Month.” I can think of an even better designation, but I leave that to you.

The week beginning with Mother’s Day is “Nursing Home Week.” I see the two celebrations linked in advertising, but I don’t like it. One has nothing to do with the other, really. Yes, some of us will need such care at a point in our lives, but more never will. And I would prefer that Mother’s Day kick off something like “Take Your Mother to Waffle House Month.” But that’s just me.

So many women much older than 65 have accomplished so much, and they didn’t do it from a nursing home. Mary Baker Eddy was 86 when she founded the Christian Science Monitor. Susan B. Anthony was in her 80s when she founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

Folk artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses was an uneducated farm woman who began painting when her arthritic hands could no longer hold an embroidery needle. Grandma Moses first took up a brush at the age of 76 and painted nearly till her death at 101.

Doris Haddock (Granny D), who in 1999, at the age of 89, began walking the 3,200 miles between Los Angeles and Washington, DC, raised awareness of the need for campaign finance reform.

These are a few pieces of history we know, but each of us has our personal heroines, women we admire for their grace and grit, many of whom have gone where no modern woman can even imagine going.

I met one of these ladies some years ago while I was living in Montana. A stately, refined woman in her eighties, I turned to her when my daughter asked if I would help my granddaughter with an assignment. The children were to interview elders in the community and ask them what it was like growing up in the West of the early twentieth century.

My friend’s father had been a grocer, and he ran the only store on a large reservation. His young daughter learned to fish and hunt, skin hides, ride bareback and all the other skills required of the Native kids. Hers was a life of imagination and spirit. As we left, she handed my granddaughter a very old doll, a remembrance of her long-ago childhood.

American Women of her generation and generations before were risk takers. Some lived quite on the edge as they accompanied the men who opened up the West. Some might be called outlaws, and I’m sure brains had as much to do with survival as brawn before law and order reigned over lawlessness. I sometimes imagine what it would have been like to live alongside them.

I continue to be amazed by the lives of other elders I have met and known over the years. So many have lead interesting lives. Others also would qualify as heroes and heroines, but for the fact that their stories have never been told.

So when you come upon a sweet granny puttering in her garden or knitting socks, don’t see her for what she seems to be, think of her for what she may have been–a reformer, pioneer, activist, fighter, groundbreaker–someone whose life may even have made your own better or easier.

Happy Mothers Day and Older Americans Month to all my funny, accomplished, radical and incurably eccentric old friends.

Sheila Velazquez lives and writes in Northwest Massachusetts. Her work is informed by decades of experience with unions, agriculture, public health, politics and her support of populism. She welcomes contact by email: simplelifestyle101@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Sheila.