We have all seen those ads for retirement villages. They always show photos of toned and smiling seniors, showing off their Hollywood hairstyles while indulging rounds of tennis, rousing board games, all the while grinning giddily into each other’s eyes.
These photos depict a smidgen of cultural diversity, because everyone singing around the piano is welcome and feels right at home. Faces of different hues means that everyone is at ease and at a comfortable age, where we accept our differences as well as what we have in common. Right? Well, maybe not. Most of these people are models and pick up their checks and never have to live under the same roof. Not all, but some.
Let us move now to places like the one I live and work in. These places exist for those who have no eggs, nest or otherwise, who have lived month to month or from check to check and have no savings and if they ever did, circumstances beyond their (our) control pulled us together and caused us to face some things about ourselves we never anticipated.
We live in 90 units of spacious apartments. Behind every door resides a different personality. Some are former (or current) divas. Some are people from “up north” which here in Minnesota means “up Duluth and Grand Marais” way. Many never met a Black or Hispanic person, and the Urbanites, from Chicago, Indiana and the south come stomping in and senior or not, have developed pre-conceived notions of anyone who does not look like them.
Everything goes fine, until political, religious or any awkward discussion gets tuned up and tempers flare. Stuffing versus cornbread dressing. Viking versus any other football team. Catholic versus Church of God in Christ and you hear remarks like, “I hate all that gospel noise making” and let’s not book a band that plays polkas and folk music. You have one side of people sitting with their arms folded and rolling their eyes while the other side hits the dance floor as if Lawrence Welk himself has arrived.
If we book a band that plays mostly rhythm and blues, the polka people might tap their toes, but they are quickly in my office asking if, next time, we could book someone else. The only common denominator has been our Elvis impersonator, where almost everyone gets on the dance floor. Hey, who can resist Elvis?
As the activities director here, I had my fill of these behaviors so, one day I conducted a little experiment. I cut a dozen strips of paper and wrote the names of musical greats like The Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jim Croce and threw in Barbara Streisand and Janis Joplin on six of them. On the other six, I wrote Sam Cooke, BB King, Otis Redding, Jerry Butler, Patti LaBelle and Billie Holiday.
I purposely stayed away from those “cross-over” people because I wanted true and honest answers. I passed these papers out to the so called “opposite” groups and challenged those who pulled them to sing one line by the artist they pulled. Faces were contorted and some made vain attempts to fake it, but sadly, most had never heard of the person they pulled. Wow! Were we not children of the same generation, listening to our tinny AM radios in the same era? Sadly, many had not even heard of the music of others, while some did, but admitted not being allowed to play it in their homes, growing up. We had a wonderful discussion and many truths were exposed. It was a time for purging our differences and deciding to work on our attitudes and assumptions about one another.
Good thing we did this, because COVID had not yet arrived. We are limited now in our gatherings, but there is a feeling of camaraderie that did not exist before. No, all feelings of division did not vanish due to my little experiment, because some things have been hard wired into many of us.
We must admit that the racial climate in Minnesota right now, is heightened due to many factors, but we are seniors, learning about ourselves and each other. We made it through wars, assassinations and changes that happened so quickly it astounded us. We must begin to be the example. We must use our hard-bought wisdom for more than division. We must make our common ground of aging count for something….for we are more than ever…in this thing together.
Zenobia Carson, 70+, lives in and is an activities director in a retirement community.