Commentary Magazine


A Thousand Pages of Research

Every time I walked along Upper Broadway, I saw them. Old men and old women, in their seventies, like me, seated side by side on the park benches set up by a benevolent city on the traffic islands dissecting the main roadway. Every time I passed those benches, stationary amidst the moving cars, I thought about how many more old people there must be all over the city, killing time, waiting for death.

Then one day it came to me. Right here in New York handicapped veterans were being trained for a new life; the blind were being taught skills; why couldn’t the old be rehabilitated? After all, we still had much to give. We all had experience and many of us had professional training. Why was all this going to waste?

The idea took hold of me, and I decided to do something about it. I went to the university nearby. I talked. They listened—patiently, but helplessly. I was passed from one department to another. The Rehabilitation Department was only for young veterans. The Adult Education Department was mildly interested, but saw no way of adopting my idea. I persisted. At last I was directed to a psychologist—let us call him Professor Sidney Stone—who specialized in the “learning abilities of adults.” I made my speech:

We want to be of use. There are recreation centers for ‘senior citizens’ to keep them off the streets, to keep them from going mad in their lonely rooms. But I speak for the old who have brains and intelligence. We are not interested in finger painting and other childish hobbies. We don’t want to kill time; we want to use it.

Professor Stone gave me a long, reflective look and said that he was trying to develop an intelligence test for older people. He suggested that if I could get together a group of women around my own age, we might start a “workshop on aging.”

It takes six simpletons and one zealot to start a movement. I began recruiting among my friends and fellow has-beens, acquaintances from the reading room of the Public Library, from the cafeterias and the park benches—wherever lonely old people begin talking to one another without introductions. Some had pensions, annuities, social security; one had a family inheritance; a few existed on dwindling savings and others on public welfare. Their enthusiasm was almost unanimous.

We gathered for our first seminar with name tags pinned to our shoulders, looking up at the professor like children on their first day of school. “You are an unusual group of women,” he began. “You have the intelligence to voice your own problems and to help us understand the old who cannot speak for themselves. You can throw light on one of the major dilemmas before us today—how to use the potentialities of the old.” He was a plump, middle-aged man with a fringe of graying hair around his bald spot, but to us he represented youth, charm, the opportunity to work and live again.

He leaned back in his chair, stroking his lapels. “Many approaches have been made to the problem of aging, but this discussion group is unique. It is to be a study of the old by the old. It is something new to meet a new need of our time. Science has salvaged scrap metal and even found vitamins and valuable oils in refuse, but old people are extravagantly wasted.”

Charlotte Hicks, the ex-school teacher among us and the only one who had a notebook, was writing down everything the professor said. The rest of us could only look at him, devouring his words. They were like a bell, calling us to prayer; his genial smile made us feel he saw something special in each one of us. “We cannot tell in advance whether we can solve your personal problems right now,” he concluded. “We cannot promise you anything except the satisfaction of working together for something that concerns us all.”

The professor rose and the first seminar was concluded. We followed him from the room like a dutiful congregation after an inspiring sermon. Things were indeed looking up. I flung my arms around dour Mrs. Monahan.

_____________

 

Our second session began with questionnaires—age, family history, former occupation, education, how do you feel about growing old? I sat with the blank forms in front of me, thinking about the past. I grew up at the turn of the century, before child labor laws or compulsory schooling. Brief night-school courses in English had only sharpened my hunger for education. Then (could it have been forty years ago?) I stumbled into writing—novels about my experiences in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side. A brief, incredible success in Hollywood was followed by long years of groping, trial and error, and finally silence. Suddenly, shocked, I found that old age was upon me. Editors who had encouraged me were dead. My stories had faded into period pieces. A new generation of writers was creating a new literature.

We handed in our questionnaires. Professor Stone turned on the tape recorder and leaned back in his chair. He talked into a tiny microphone: “When does old age begin?”

Charlotte Hicks, sixty-nine and the youngest of the group, was the first to speak. She hadn’t felt old, she explained, until she applied for a tutoring job at a teacher’s agency and was told to say she was fifty instead of sixty-five. Charlotte snatched off her glasses. She was in a rage. “That man told me to lie!”

Kathleen Monahan, who had the worries of the world in her wrinkled face, was incredulous. “Holy Mother! What’s a few lies? I tell ‘em every day. Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t? When my social worker comes snooping around, asking how I spend my money, can I tell her everything?”

The professor did his best to restore order and bring the ladies back to the subject. I said that feeling old was not a matter of years and Rose agreed by defining old age as the time where there is nothing left to look forward to.

Kathleen Monahan eyed Rose’s blue cashmere sweater and expressed the view that those who had gone through the hell of home relief probably had less time to feel sorry for themselves.

Alice, the oldest, intervened as peacemaker. She had outlived the doctors with whom she had worked, outlived what the depression had left of her family fortune. Nearly eighty, she had been forced to go on relief.

“I wasn’t aware of age,” she said with a slight smile, “until I was seventy-nine and walked up the stone stairs of the Welfare Office to apply for Old Age Assistance. I worked for the poor all my life. But not until I was one of them did I see what goes on under the name of charity.”

We did not look at one another. The only sound was the mechanical purr of the tape recorder. Professor Stone watched us in silence.

Alice turned to Kathleen. “You know that Old Age Assistance provides hardly enough for food and rent. The morning paper, news of what’s going on in the world, is as necessary to me as coffee for breakfast. I made ten dollars knitting a sweater and was so proud of it I showed the case worker the money I earned. The next month ten dollars was deducted from my check.”

Derisive laughter at Alice’s innocence was followed by a storm of indignation. We all began to talk, outshouting each other.

“Ladies! Please!” Professor Stone called us to order. “Pensions are not the subject here. We’re wasting time.” He paused. “Instead of dwelling on your grievances, have you ever thought of volunteering your services to your neighborhood community center, church, or hospital? In helping others we touch something greater than ourselves.”

Anger and disappointment were in every face but Alice’s. No one spoke. The closing bell put an end to the embarrassing silence.

_____________

 

In the street I burst out. Was our work then worth nothing? Why should we volunteer? Just because we’re old? The very thing we needed was the self-respect that comes with getting paid for working.

At our next session, Professor Stone picked up a glass, partially filled it at the water tap and opined that there were negative and positive ways of looking at everything. The glass, for example, could be considered either as half empty or as half full. It was up to us. Even if this country abolished forced retirement and prejudice against the old, what would each of us then be able to do?

Alice was the first to see what he meant. “I could be a clinic receptionist as long as I didn’t have to stand. Or I could work in a doctors’ telephoning service.”

The other ladies took up the cry. Kathleen could still “cook in six different languages,” and even the usually silent Rose Broder debated her chances of becoming a chaperone or housekeeper.

“When you think of your positive assets, you conquer your prejudices against old age,” Professor Stone continued. He turned to Charlotte, whose face had grown fixed and still while the others were talking. “Miss Hicks! What are your positive assets?”

“My thirty-five years of teaching,” Charlotte retorted in her clipped schoolteacher’s voice. “Methods of teaching change, of course, and my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be. But what made me a good teacher is still in me. My age is the one unpardonable sin.”

Minerva Neilson stood up and sorrowfully took the floor. “I was a columnist for thirty years. My column in our hometown paper was the first thing anybody read. When the editor died, his grandson took over. ‘We need a change,’ he said. ‘We want something new.’” She wiped her eyes with her knuckles like a child. “The young have overrun the world.”

“All that you ladies have said only accentuates the importance of thinking positively,” the professor concluded. “The body weakens with the years, hearing, sight and speed lessen, but the power to serve is ageless. . . .”

And so we went from week to week. Professor Stone would open every session with a smile, greeting us approvingly, secure in the confidence that our project was the opening wedge in an entirely new approach to the problems of old age. He reassured us that as a result of the facts that were being recorded, a revolution against compulsory retirement would be initiated. Facts, the professor said, “have a power and vitality of their own.” By way of reply, Minerva Neilson stood up one day in class, her scarf as usual thrown with studied artlessness over her shoulders, and told the professor that if she did succeed in getting a book published, she’d dedicate it to him. Grateful and embarrassed, the professor seized his briefcase and dismissed us five minutes early.

The tape recorder never stopped purring. What is “intelligence in the old”? What is “creative maturity”? How can we learn to “think constructively”? Our discussion trailed off into abstractions and the professor’s words sailed higher and higher over our heads. If we could only stop talking, I thought sometimes, and meet in silence as the Quakers do, then maybe he would finally understand.

The dreaded last day of the seminar came. Professor Stone walked in, smiling as always. “Are old people too close to death to be able to talk about it freely?” he began. “A social worker told me to avoid the subject when speaking to the aged. But your attitude toward death is an important aspect of our inquiry, so I deferred the question until we had the broadest possible orientation.”

As usual, Charlotte Hicks, the youngest, was the first to speak. “I could die tomorrow. It wouldn’t matter. Nobody needs me; nobody would care.” She was suddenly on her feet. “I just can’t stand the sight of old people! Why don’t they just finish us off quickly, instead of prolonging our uselessness!”

The professor’s pencil point broke with a loud snap. It was out at last! An odd, reckless excitement possessed the room. At last, after all those months of talking, somebody had said what we all felt. (Were we jealous of Charlotte’s comparative youth? Were we glad to discover that she was in the same boat with the rest of us? Perhaps—but there was more to it than that.) Charlotte snapped off her glasses and tapped them lightly against her hand. “From childhood on I was taught to save—to save for a rainy day, to save for the future. Well, now I’ve got my pension—but what’s the use of living without being able to work?”

Kathleen Monahan had the final say. “I can’t quite imagine myself under the sod, not yet. There’s an old saying: the young may die, the old must die—but not me.” Why are we wasting time talking about death, I wondered. How are we going to live until we die?

Professor Stone fumbled with his papers, his face gray and tired as if all the old women in the room had inflicted their impotence on him. There was, regrettably, no time to answer these questions, he said. The fact that we could still ask them, though, was encouraging. He glanced at his watch, took a deep breath, and offered us his concluding remarks. We had started something that, developed and expanded, might lead to great changes in ways of dealing with the problem of old age. Our discussions and case histories were only the first of a series, and these already comprised over a thousand pages of data. When these were analyzed and collated, a report would be drawn up that would no doubt be of great benefit to future students of gerontology. This was only the beginning. He thanked us for the insights he had gained from our seminar and expressed the hope that it had been “a profitable year for us all.” One by one we bade the professor goodbye, and filed out.

Unwilling, or afraid, to disperse, we made our way as a group to the school cafeteria. We sat around a table, mute as mourners, sipping tea. “We talked our heads off—for what?” asked Kathleen Monahan.

“For a thousand pages of research,” I replied.

“He had a job to do and he did it,” said Alice, calmly.

“So our seminar was only a job to him?”

“We were only statistics to him,” said Charlotte Hicks. “Dots on a graph.” Methodically she began tearing the pages from her notebook, watching them flutter to the ground.

“His heart,” said Minerva Neilson, “is wired to a tape recorder.”

Kathleen Monahan stood up and took hold of her shopping bag. “What dopes we were. A whole year wasted, only to find out the professor don’t know nothing.”

“What did you want him to do?” Alice asked. “Be God? Make us young again?”

“Where do we go from here?” I asked.

_____________

 

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