Racism Among the Elderly

Every day, my 87-year-old relative and his 86-year-old girlfriend leave their assisted living home and go to the McDonald’s restaurant on E. Fillmore for breakfast. Recently, they encountered two Cuban gentlemen who were standing there conversing in Spanish. My relative was pleased to tell all of us that his girlfriend had confronted the two gentlemen and told them:

“People would like you more if you spoke English instead of Mexican.”

They, being gentlemen, told her they were Cuban, not Mexican and then ignored her. On the off chance that these individuals might see this column, I, on behalf of all of his and her relatives want to deeply apologize for their racist behavior. And we want to thank you for ignoring their insults.

I’m sure you have heard worse. My college roommate was Cuban and I work with two Cubans so I know racism can be a part of your daily life. Partly to explain to you, and partly to give other people a heads up, I want you to know that neither of these individuals displayed such racism in their younger days. He is a first generation immigrant and knows first-hand about the prejudice that he and his parents faced. She was a real estate agent who ignored the red-lined parts of Ft. Collins and sold as well as rented to both Hispanics and blacks. Her daughter is a school principal who learned from her mother’s example to treat everyone with respect. She would be horrified at how you were confronted. But mom has suffered a series of strokes and her rational thinking has been greatly affected. He has a bad heart and catches infections easily. Each bout of illness brings him closer to death as well as robbing him of his judgment.

It will probably not shock either of you to learn that both of these elderly people watch Fox News daily and are big Trump supporters. That was not always the case. Exhibit A is that both were once registered Democrats who went against their families and supported the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, and opposed the Vietnam War.

The media constantly warns people about financial scams aimed at their elderly relatives. Of course those are a serious problem. Less noticeable is how certain media and politicians target the elderly and exploit their reduced faculties. Fox News and Donald Trump are merely the most blatant examples of this ageist targeting. As our relatives show decline in their reasoning abilities, either due to dementia, strokes, or Alzheimer’s, they seek out the familiar and the comfortable. Fox News deliberately provides this comfort. This why their mostly white viewership averages 68 years-old. The Fox News’ sponsors peddle everything from gold to adult diapers, and anything else the elderly might fancy. Besides confirming the biases of the old white audience, Fox also fans their fears and promotes politicians like Trump who promise to ease their trepidations.

As these people face the prospect of death, they are scared. They worry that their patriotism, dedication, and hard work is being squandered. They worry about their legacy and want to make sure America is still great after they die. It doesn’t help that so many elderly are in segregated living facilities. They are not deliberately segregated. But few minorities have achieved the financial success needed to meet the high cost of good elderly care facilities. Even the typical retirement community is out of reach for many.

My father retired in Florida many years ago and has lived in three different communities. All have been 99% white even though Florida has a large minority population. And my father has developed racist attitudes and speech that are so embarrassing that my sons won’t have anything to do with him. This is a man who once canceled his Standard Oil credit card and boycotted their gas stations because he was so outraged after we stopped at a Standard Oil station in Alabama in 1965 that still had three bathrooms: Men, Women, and Colored. My father spent 25 years in the Air Force and 20 years at the Post Office. He taught me to ignore race and to treat people with respect both by his words and by his actions. Now he spouts nonsense that would make David Duke proud.

Perhaps it’s the heat. Old people, even in the South, like to keep their thermostats cranked up. If not, maybe it’s the humidity. No matter. There’s a crap ton of old people and more of them are showing up every day, with “I’m a dittohead” buttons seriously askew. If you have elderly relatives and you want to avoid the embarrassment of racist comments, you need to get busy now. Use parental controls to block Fox News. Better yet, block all news channels. And put up last year’s calendar. That way they won’t even know it’s an election year. Don’t let them go out in public alone. And when you spot a potential problem (Oh, look at that black baby), distract them the way you would a two-year-old. Ice cream usually works. So does asking their opinion about buying some new piece of technology they’ve never heard of.

Caring for children is a tough job. But caring for your parents is no picnic either. To paraphrase Shakespeare, those who pick the elderly’s wallets steal trash, but those who steal their humanity throw them into real poverty. And that is arguably the worst kind of elderly abuse.