Poverty, Fear and Social Isolation: Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Older Adults in Poor Neighborhoods

Much of the previous discussion on this blog has focused on the hardships of inner-city children. I have talked about the consequences among children of poor nutrition, unequal schools, inaccessible health care, and youth gang violence. However, it is important to acknowledge that poverty—and especially the experience of living in a poor, segregated and isolated neighborhood—have catastrophic effects on the health and wellbeing of adults and older adults as well.

As a social work intern working at the University of Chicago Hospital my job was to check in on patients and to assist with their discharge planning. During this time, I spoke with many elderly patients—the majority of whom were African American and lived in impoverished South Side neighborhoods surrounding the University of Chicago.

As I interacted with these patients and gently probed for information about their home life (it was a part of my job)— their stories began to unravel.  I’ll never forget one woman, a frail but spunky African American lady in her mid nineties. When I asked this patient (we’ll call her Ms. Price) how her stay at the hospital was going, she retorted, “well, now I know why Obama is sayin’ we need health care reform.”

Ms. Price had lived in the same Chicago neighborhood since she arrived from the South at age 18. Since her husband died from cancer thirty years ago, Ms. Price had managed the upkeep of her home on her own and led a largely solitary life. Overtime, Ms. Price’s neighborhood became more dangerous and depopulated. The sidewalks were cracked and littered with broken glass. Drug dealers hung out in vacant buildings, and neighborhood shootings were common.

Fear held Ms. Price hostage. She worried that if she left the house she would trip on the crumbled sidewalk or be caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting. She stopped going to church, visiting friends and attending community socials for seniors. Ms. Price only left her home to buy groceries and visit the doctor.

When I asked Ms. Price if she had any friends or family that could help care for her after her surgery, she answered wistfully, “No…I just always take care of myself. You get to a certain age and all your friends are dead. I used to have a friend who called me once a year, but this year he didn’t call…I think maybe he died.”

As I continued my internship at the hospital, I continued to meet more people like Ms. Price— black and Latino senior citizens living lonely, isolated lives in poor neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides. For many of these people, safety was a major concern. I found that many senior citizens were afraid to leave their homes—and often ended up severing important social ties and connections to their communities. Too often, fear prevented senior citizens from attending community events, getting fresh air and exercise, seeking medical help and leading active and fulfilling lives.

I later learned while reading an excerpt from Eric Klineberg’s book “Heat Wave”, that one of the leading causes of death during the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave was social isolation among the elderly. Older adults, who were afraid to leave their homes during the heat wave, were less likely to seek reprieve in air-conditioned public spaces such as shopping malls. They were also less likely to seek services that might be provided by community organizations and nearby churches.

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Although older adults living in poverty may face many challenges (unsafe neighborhoods, health problems, social isolation, costly medications—to name a few)—people of all ages can be valuable assets to their communities and agents of positive change.

Last Saturday, I attended a leadership-training workshop for Black and Latino older adults. Gamaliel Metro Chicago (a local chapter of a nationwide community organizing group) and the AARP ran the workshop. The aim of the workshop was to train older adult leaders to be community organizers and to advocate for issues important to older adults on Chicago’s South and West sides.

When the doors opened at 9 am, there was already a line of chatting, silver-haired participants waiting outside. By the time the training started, there was close to ninety people clustered around circular tables in the conference room.

I hadn’t anticipated just how inspiring this event would be. As the participants shared their personal histories, I learned that many of them had overcome unimaginable personal hardships before becoming formidable leaders in their communities. One remarkable woman I met recalled her childhood growing up in Louisiana. She remembered walking on a dirt road each day to a one room school house with the other black children in her neighborhood—and watching when a school bus carrying the white children to a different school rattled by them each day. This injustice gnawed at her deeply. When she finally came to Chicago as a young woman, she felt disheartened that things didn’t seem much better here than they were in the South. Black and Latino children were still attending deeply segregated and unequal schools. Since that time, she told me she’s spent a lifetime working or volunteering for education reform. When she spoke about the limited ESL services available for immigrant children at her community school she remarked, “Oooh, it just burns me up. One thing, I know I’ll be working on this til I die. I just know it.”

Many of the other workshop participants also held impressive leadership positions within their communities. One man I met ran a food pantry, and other man described a mentorship program for high school students he started and coordinated on his own—after he was denied at job at Burger King because he didn’t have a college degree.

Like Ms. Price, many of the seniors were concerned about safety and community services for other seniors. After some questioning, one woman told me that she had decided to come to the event after an elderly man at her church been beaten to death in the street. “He was such a gentleman”, she recalled fondly, “he was always helping the old ladies down the altar after communion—even though he was an old guy too.”

Throughout the training, it occurred to me that like young people, older adults are also in a unique position to help their communities and to foster positive change. Unlike many middle-aged adults who must balance the demands of work and parenting, most older adults have an abundance of free time.  Furthermore, many older adults have a reached a point in their lives where they have accrued a lot of wisdom and have developed an acute sense of compassion and a desire to “give back”.

It is important that we begin to bring more awareness to the struggles that older adults in poor communities may face. This demographic is vulnerable but if organized, they can also be powerful. Older adults deserve to live in safe places and to have social services that will allow them to be fruitful and productive in the final chapter of their lives.

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