Why we really do need to respect — and listen to — our elders

"The Agenda in the Summer" host Nam Kiwanuka reflects on Aida Edemariam’s "The Wife's Tale," a biography of the author's grandmother
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on July 6, 2018
Nam Kiwanuka interviews Aida Edemariam, author of “The Wife’s Tale.”

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A couple of months ago, I was heartbroken when I read the story of a lonely grandfather in China who had placed an ad asking to be taken in by a family.

According to the Washington Post, the flyer said, “Lonely old man in his eighties. Strong-bodied. Can shop, cook and take care of himself. No chronic illness. I retired from a scientific research institute in Tianjin, with a monthly pension of 6,000 RMB [$950] a month.” It continued: “I won’t go to a nursing home. My hope is that a kind-hearted person or family will adopt me, nourish me through old age and bury my body when I’m dead.”

Lately, it seems we’ve been seeing more stories from around the world about seniors living — and dying — alone. Earlier this year, British prime minister Theresa May appointed a minister of loneliness to confront the issue. In Canada, a 2015 study found that 750,000 seniors sufferedphysical, sexual, psychological or financial abuse and neglect.” CARP, an organization that represents older Canadians, is petitioning the federal government to appoint a cabinet minister for seniors’ issues — joining calls for a national strategy to address the needs of seniors.

We are failing our elders — and in doing so, we’re also missing out on the wisdom and richness they can bring us.

Recently, I walked in on my kids “having tea” with an imaginary grandmother and grandfather. My kids don’t have any grandparents in their lives. Both of my husband’s parents have died, and I grew up with only my father, from whom I’ve been estranged since I was in my teens. My grandmother, the woman who sponsored my family to come to Canada, died shortly after we moved here.

Although my children are young (my son is seven and my daughter is five), they sense that they’re missing something — something that I can never give them. I’ve also felt the absence of grandparents in my life, of not having an elder to turn to when I’m in need of advice or support.

My kids playing tea with their pretend grandparents also reminded me of an interview I did (airing tonight on The Agenda in the Summer) with Ethiopian Canadian journalist Aida Edemariam, who wrote a beautiful tribute to her paternal grandmother in the book The Wife’s Tale.

Edemariam’s grandmother, Yetemegnu, lived to be about 95 years old. (Because there weren’t any formal birth certificates in Ethiopia at the time, the book explains, Edemariam’s grandmother’s exact date of birth is unknown.)

Edemariam is a journalist with The Guardian, and off and on over the course of many years, she recorded her grandmother telling stories about what life was like growing up in Ethiopia during the rise and fall of the late emperor Haile Selassie. Yetemegnu was married when she was eight years old to a man who was more than 20 years older. She would go on to experience great sorrow and to overcome many hardships, but she also had triumphs — for example, she learned to read when she was in her 60s.

The Wife’s Tale is a story of how one person’s ordinary life can become extraordinary when viewed through a historical lens. As Edemariam said in a Globe and Mail interview, “History is lived by ordinary people in just as much vividness [as the supposed great figures] and sometimes more, particularly in times of turmoil.”

Considering that those before us worked to help create the country we have, and considering that we will all — if we’re lucky enough to live that long — one day be in need of support, it behooves us to create a society that makes a place for seniors. There’s an African proverb, said to have originated in Sudan, which says, "A village without elderly people is like a well without water.” That is, empty.

Meanwhile, the rise in loneliness isn’t affecting only seniors; it’s also having an impact on younger people. We’re living in silos side by side and connecting mostly online — which is becoming a more divisive experience every day.

Why not sit with those who came before us and hear their stories? If we don’t, what are we missing, and what mistakes of the past are we setting ourselves up to repeat?

On August 13, The Agenda in the Summer will profile Barrie, an Ontario city that has been celebrated for creating an age-friendly city for seniors.

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