I bet you are wondering how I am going to weave together these three topics.
Although we will actually get to the part about bagels in a little bit, the bagel is a surprisingly good metaphor for this conversation about social connections and paradigms – some people like them and some people don’t, individuals have very specific ways they like to enjoy them, there is a lot of discussion about how to make them the right way or get the best ones, they come in many different flavors, they are circular, they can be hard to chew….
This conversation might be hard to chew because we need to have the courage and curiosity to question ourselves. If we don’t, how will we move forward?
Unless we uncover the paradigm of growing older, and wrestle with it, how can we change it?
The paradigm is a system of beliefs, ideas, values, and habits that is a way of thinking about the real world. A paradigm is a living, breathing thing. It is not just an idea, as it takes many forms in real life. That’s how you know it is there.
This is an example of how our paradigm of growing older comes to life in how we might think about social connections and elders.
Once upon a time I had spoken with a group of elders in a “senior residence”. (Note: I am not sure of the term to best describe residential options for elders, so I am using this term here.)
In our discussions, I learned that several of the individuals who lived there were from New York City, as I am originally. As we shared stories about New York, these individuals became more animated, and developed connections with each other. I got the sense that this was a commonality that they had not previously explored together. In the spirit of the conversation, which was about social connections and community, I thought about fostering this connection through a shared sense of identity.
Later that day, I learned that my parents were traveling to New York in the next few days. I love serendipity! I asked them to bring back some extra bagels, as I had an idea of having a “bagel and coffee klatch” with my new acquaintances at the senior residence.
But how do I reach these individuals, to see if I can come and visit with them?
Even thought I had met these individuals, there was no direct exchange of information, so I would need to go through gatekeepers. You know, the people who work in senior residences that you need to go through in order to connect with the people who live there. (Another note: I do not use the term “gatekeeper” disrespectfully, but in the spirit of challenging us to think differently. I was a gatekeeper too.)
After some detective work, I was given a contact name for a person who worked at the senior residence.
I emailed this individual, explaining who I was, how I had become acquainted with the individuals who lived there, naming the New Yorkers I met, and asked for help in how to connect with them. Below is the response that has been edited so it is not identifiable.
That is very thoughtful of you. I am sure our New Yorkers would appreciate it very much as well. Unfortunately, I am not the right person to set up this type of meeting.
These residents are in the Independent Living part of XXXXXX, so I don’t set up social events for them. However, if you came to us interested in connecting with them as a Gerontologist, we could work together with you to do a presentation here at XXXXXX in that capacity and in that way, they can meet you and you can meet them. Or, you could connect with our Volunteer Coordinator, XXXXXX, and come in as a volunteer for the events that XXXXXX promotes.
Either of these would be a good way for you to get in touch with the residents, meet them, build a connection and if they want to further that connection, or meet you for bagels, this would be, of course, up to them.
Let me know if you have any questions.
The individual who responded was perfectly polite. She was likely following protocols for the organization. These were reasonable suggestions. Likely she had hundreds of emails needing responses, and I am grateful she took the time to respond to me. I understood where she was coming from.
But something nagged at me about what this was saying.
I felt like I was being kept out of the gate. I just wanted to bring these folks bagels and get to know them. But there was no clear way that I could connect with them directly. They didn’t even know I wanted to get in the gate.
In “normal” life, if I meet someone at a community event, and I want to follow-up with that person, we would probably exchange contact information.
If I only thought about it afterwards, I might contact the organizer of the event, and ask if s/he knew the person with whom I wanted to connect. I might ask if the organizer could pass on my contact information to this individual. Of course, I wouldn’t expect the organizer to share a person’s private information with me without her permission, but there would be several ways that we could explore how I might directly connect with this person. It is not likely in “normal” life that the only ways I could connect with a person would be to offer a presentation at a future event and hope that the person would be there, or to become a volunteer with the organization holding the event so that I could possibly run in to this person again.
However, senior residences do not typically operate like “normal” life. Although the people who live there are just like you and me, and need the same normal things.
Certainly, I understand that there is a level of security that needs to be considered for individuals living in senior residences. It might be irresponsible to allow “outsiders” to come and go freely. And perhaps there is a responsibility to mitigate against “outsiders” taking advantage of those living in senior residences.
On the other hand, should we be mindful of creating boundaries that would restrict people who live in senior residences from interacting with the rest of the world?
I wondered how this might be approached differently. Maybe a contact person at the senior residence would share my information with the New Yorkers directly, and let them decide if they wanted me to visit with them. A contact person might also ask these individuals if they are interested in meeting with me, and if they want to share their contact information with me. A contact person might ask me to write a note that s/he would share with them.
If I had thought of my bagel and coffee klatch when I was there, I might have asked for their contact information when I met them. Yet, I would still likely have had to get “permission” from someone who worked there, even if it was just to secure a place to meet.
To be fair, these options do require effort, and there might not be someone in the senior residence who would be tasked with doing this sort of thing.
Yet, the response suggested that there was really no easy way to meet with these elders, unless I went through the organization in a formalized way. Unless I went through the gatekeepers. In order to meet with my fellow New Yorkers, I would either have to give a presentation, or become a volunteer. These two options are somewhat time-intensive, but more importantly, did not specifically address my interest in meeting with these individuals directly, in the hopes of developing friendships. They only indirectly presented the opportunity that I would be able to meet them again, so I really wouldn’t know whether the New Yorkers even wanted to meet me or my bagels.
This experience is so pertinent to our recent national and global conversations on loneliness, social connection, and social isolation.
Within the ironies of talking about social connection with elders, I saw so many potential roadblocks to connecting socially with individuals living in senior residences.
I think this is a part of a paradigm of how we think abnormally about older people and social connections, a paradigm we need to reconsider. I see evidence that, rather than prioritize normalcy, community, and purpose related to social connections, we start with programs, policies, and systems.
We create gatekeepers when we could have connectors.
We are concerned about people being socially isolated. But do “we” create some of the conditions that allow for social isolation?
Do “we” create systems, organizations, and institutions that isolate elders from the rest of the world? Even within organizations, how much do the levels of care that we create result in social isolation, or at least discourage social connection?
Are “we” the isolators and disconnectors?
Do we mean to create isolation and disconnection? I don’t think so. I think it is another example of how the artificiality of how we have constructed systems of support for each other as we grow older becomes so normalized that we don’t see it as abnormal.
That is a big sentence. What I mean is that there are lots of artificial things about senior residences, and other types of services, that really cannot allow for normal things like social connection. It becomes normal that a person living in a senior residence would not make new friends in the “outside” community (unless that person is a volunteer). Because the systems are set up this way, still influenced by institutional thinking, they become accepted, and then we do not see how abnormal they truly are.
My fear is that this reflects an underlying paradigm that says that older people do not need to be seen. Maybe a paradigm that says that older people do not have a place in our communities. That we can’t seem to find a place where they can be active participants in our communities, in normal, natural ways. Because they are not “us”. Gulp.
And, so paradoxically, we create programs to encourage older people to not be lonely, or socially isolated, while at the same time we create systems that isolate and disconnect.
What would it look like to truly promote social connection between elders living in senior residences with the larger community? What would it look like to encouraged multi-generational connections in natural, normal ways?
What would it look like to have a bagel and coffee klatch with elders you meet and like, and want to know better?