For the last week or so, a thought has been simmering inside me that I want to say something about.

But I become angry when I think about this idea, which makes it harder for me to find good words to speak my mind so that people will read what I’m saying respectfully and not discount it because of my bitchy sarcasm – I apologize to those whom my language upsets. My preference is to be silver-tongued and not sharp-tongued.

I am upset at how little mainstream North American society values its elders.

This is evident in how so many of our retirement residences and nursing homes have become prisons for the elderly during this pandemic. It is evident in the fact that our elders are dying and, of all the commentary, there is little said about the wisdom that is passing from our lives with these deaths.

At the end of this essay is a picture of my Mother.

My mother raised four children after her husband died in 1967 and each day I hope I live up to the courage she showed in that task.

When my father died, my mother was qualified to do his job and was offered it. She had no other way to support her family and she took the job – at half of what he was paid.

In 1967, in Quebec, women were not allowed to have loans or mortgages. When the bank found out that it was her and not a man paying the mortgage, they repossessed the house when she refused to have a male guarantor.

She only ever paid cash for a car. I will never forget her paying for a new Ford Focus with ten $1000 bills to the surprise of the male salesperson who had helped her choose it. When it seemed as though he had nothing to say, she said to him in a firm, determined voice, “I’d like my change.”

People think of me as determined and I am. I come by it honestly, and on days in my life when that was difficult, my mother would say, “Never let anyone push you around. If there are things they say the rules won’t let you do, just do what you feel is best however you can.”

I miss her support and her wisdom. With so many elders dying, we are losing all their support and wisdom  – at a time when we need it most. Even worse, the state of nursing homes and retirement residences suggests that we didn’t even value what we had.

I have been struggling to put this into the best words and then, today, my friend posted this on Twitter:

“When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.”

9 thoughts on “My COVID-19 Journal – Day 31

  1. Christine says:

    As always, your words illuminate and provoke thought that is much needed. You said you generally strive for silver-tongued rather than sharp-tongued responses in life. As I read this blog, I thought you achieved a nice balance between these. I imagined a beautiful set of silver quilting scissors used judiciously to trim edges and threads. Your words were like those scissors for me. I think sometimes we need the sharp and the silver to cut through the nonsense that we see, the injustices.
    Your mother was indeed a strong woman and clearly you learned to be one as well. I am reminded of her words often by my own family “don’t let others push you around”. What I see and what I know about you Gail is that you know your values and you live by them. And sometimes that means using a sharper tongue than you might like to.
    And you are right about how we treat our elders, it’s something that has bothered me for ages. My own father is in a long-term care home right now and they do have Covid cases there, though no currently in his unit. I worry for him though I know that he is receiving better care there than at his old retirement home.
    Ageism is alive and well, unfortunately. I hope that this pandemic will bring good changes to how we treat our elders. We’ll see how long the memory of this experience lasts when life returns to some sort of normalcy.
    Thank you for all your work, for your thoughts, for your words … silver or sharp, I appreciate them.
    Stay safe,

  2. Val says:

    Love your blogs Gail … always poignant. Thanks for sharing the injustice and hardships your dearest Mother had to experience and which influenced her resolve and the stronger woman she became… the apple does not fall far from the tree 🙂 How do we begin to embrace and celebrate our aging process and our elderly?
    Given the sad situation that we are witnessing related to this recent pandemic, this is certainly an opportunity to examine and Reshape care for the elderly – where we can make that difference, given our current political structures and will. It is generally known that there are many cultures who value, embrace and celebrate their elderly in our circle of life. For example, In Greek and Greek-American culture, old age is honored and celebrated, and respect for elders is central to the family; in Vietnam, elders are considered ‘the carriers of knowledge, tradition and wisdom; in China, respecting the elderly is part of the actual law and elders can sue their grown children for financial and emotional support; Japan has a national paid holiday called ‘respect for the aged day’.
    Native American cultures traditionally accept death as a fact of life and elders pass down their knowledge. There are over 500 Native American nations, and each has its own traditions and attitudes toward aging and elderly care. But in many tribal communities, elders are respected for their wisdom and life experiences. Within Native American families, it’s common for the elders to be expected to pass down their learnings to younger members of the family. Nonetheless, Indigenous older peoples’ voices and experiences still remain largely absent in the dominant models on aging and the proper caring of our elderly. I am wondering if within the advantage of our Truth & Reconciliation mandate in Canada, if we perhaps leverage our native ancestry teachings to provide guidance towards integration to importantly bridge this apparent gap?

  3. Cathy Brohman says:

    Gail, I appreciate so much reading you, the vulnerability, the honesty, the experience. Thank you for what you do.

  4. Audrey Lawrence says:

    Your daily blogs have been most interesting and this one is so true. Yes, women in Quebec were not treated well in those days. I remember once as a young girl I fell from a tree and injured myself, the hospital ER could not start treatment on my mother’s sayso (despite a permission letter from my father.) He was serving as Fire Marshall for the Canadian Army in Camp Rafah in Egypt. The doctor at Jeffery Hale Hospital had to be patched via the army’s shortwave radio until my father was reached and he gave permission for them to treat me. Meanwhile, I was in deep pain and bleeding for hours until this could occur, all because a woman was a nobody in Quebec. Fortunately, legislation and the women’s movement have changed this.

    Now today, our elders are being treated like nobodies and abandoned to die alone in their beds in Quebec and elsewhere.

  5. Helen says:

    Thank you Gail . This is powerful and close to my heart. My parents are both in their nineties and I Skype with my mother daily. When I was young I used to imagine a process whereby one could syphon an elder’s knowledge into the brain of a knowledge-hungry youth.
    My mother lost both parents in the holocaust and though still good-natured she has lost her ability to understand a lot of what goes on in the present ( though she is still able to translate Czech!)
    My father is a former university prof in chemistry now blind with not much quality of life is so far in a Covid free Amica but like the rest of the world we are on tenterhooks waiting.
    I still don’t understand why retirement homes don’t repatriate residents when someone falls ill or at very least get them out of fourbed rooms
    Sadly I think that you answered that question

    1. drgailbeck says:

      Thank you for telling us about your parents. We are truly losing so much knowledge with all these elders passing.

    2. drgailbeck says:

      Thank you, Audrey, for another story of this injustice. I hope you are staying safe.

  6. Siobhan M Muldowney says:

    Thank you for this Gail. “When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground”. I will remember this.

    1. drgailbeck says:

      Isn’t that a great quote? Thanks for reading this Siobhan – and for goodness’ sake, stay safe!

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