Looking for Abuela in America

by Alice Fisher, M.A., M.S.W.
January 6, 2017

My husband and I just spent a marvelous week with our friend of over 30 years, Maria Acosta Castro, and the entire Acosta family in Medellin, Colombia. It was our first time there, and we were thrilled to meet the entire Acosta family, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, grandchildren and great grandchildren, lots of cousins, and, most important, Abuela, Maria’s mom and matriarch of this loving and dedicated family. They are certainly dedicated to each other. Most impressive, however, is their dedication to Abuela (grandmother in Spanish).

acosta-children-with-abuela
Over Christmas weekend, we ate and danced and ate and drank and ate some more. Such a happy family who sincerely enjoy each other’s company and being together. They are not a wealthy family, and yet they are extremely rich in the most important things in life…unqualified love and support. There is no word for ageism in their vocabulary.

During a conversation with Maria’s 30-year-old nephew, Fredy Duque, I mentioned how heartwarming it was to witness everyone’s devotion to his grandmother. “My grandmother is revered,” he told me. “No matter what I am doing in my life, I visit my grandmother every week, sometimes twice, as do most of our family. Her advice is invaluable.”
Maria’s brother explained to me how most of his brothers and sisters live relatively close to Abuela. “It’s how it is here,” he added. “We are all devoted to her.”

Fredy inquired about my own 3 sons and grandchildren. When I told him we have have 4 granddaughters, he asked how often they come to see us. I told him that we see two of them, 11 and 14, once a year, occasionally twice. They live in Chicago, and we go to them…they never come to us. This was completely beyond his comprehension. The others, one in college in Wisconsin and one in high school in DC where they live, we see more often…maybe 4-5 times a year. And, even that was unacceptable to him. “No, no,” he said, shaking his head, “impossible!”

I described our ageist American culture to him, explaining how Ageism is as endemic to our society as is racism, sexism, and all the rest. “Americans worship youth,” I said. “They do not value elders as contributors to our society”, I added; “some even see us as a burden. Many older and elder adults are resigned to the margins of society”. He tried to control the look of anguish on his face. He couldn’t understand. Who can? The Radical Age Movement was just not describable. I was in another world.

I then expressed my concern over our own needs in our old age and if there would be anyone to help us at the end of our lives when we can no longer care for each other or ourselves. “Incredible!” was his response. “That you need to worry about this in your later years is so bad.” I attempted to put this in perspective, explaining how we would survive while many old people who are homeless with no social support systems cannot survive old age with any quality of life, self-worth, or dignity.

Now, as I am flying home to New York City, I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of the respect and reverence that this extraordinary older woman receives, and how those high opinions contribute to her marvelous sense of well-being. I can’t help wondering where we, as a society and as individuals, went wrong. I ask myself what happened to Abuela in our American culture? Where is she?

For sure, you can find her here among the immigrant community that has not yet internalized the negative images of the old that we are bombarded with every day. Will they, I wonder, also succumb to the power of our society’s disregard for the oldest among us?

Two incidents come to mind:

  1. My parents spent the last couple of years of their lives at a wonderful facility, The Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York. When we were arranging their accommodations, one of the staff said to us, “You would not believe how many people drop off their parents or other older members of their family, never to be seen again.”

2. I was asked to make a presentation on empowerment to a new women’s group that had been formed at an assistant living facility. I met with a lovely and intelligent group of older women. One issue most of them seemed to have in common was their relationships with their grandchildren. One woman told the group that she hardly knows her grandchildren and how the grandchildren really don’t know her. This sentiment was echoed by the majority of women in the room.

How sad is that!

We have to confront ageism wherever we see it. We will not only be helping ourselves; we will be helping make a better society.

Alice Fisher is Founder and President of the Radical Age Movement

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