That Could Have Been Me

Sometimes you hear a story in the news that you can’t get out of your head. A friend is obsessed with the story of an older couple who refused to leave their homes during our wildfires this fall, because they thought they would be safe in their cement bunker. Tragically, they didn’t survive the intense fire, and my friend wants to know why their children or officials didn’t make more of an effort to persuade them to leave.

A story that has obsessed me for the past month is the senseless death of a 71-year-old man who was attacked while riding on a bike path not far from where I live. Apparently, his assailants wanted his bike, something scarce and valuable in a time when people feel the need to escape their homes.

Two days before I read the article about his death, I was on that same bike path, although on the opposite (west) end. I’m also the same age as the victim. I can’t help but think that easily could have been me. It’s a reminder that death can come any time, out of the blue and in the least likely places: a public bike path on a warm day, to someone just enjoying the fresh air and sun.

After the initial reporting, I searched the newspaper every day to find out what exactly happened. Although the details were sketchy, it sounds like three men went to grab the victim’s  bike, and in the process the victim was injured badly enough that he died a week later. Did he fall and crack his head or did they rough him up enough that he couldn’t survive his injuries? Or did he have a heart attack in the process?

The article described him as “elderly.” It’s always a shock to realize that society sees people my age as elderly. In my outdated view, “elderly” refers to my grandmothers who wore long, droopy dresses and black chunky shoes, or to residents of a nursing home who are frail and maybe suffering from dementia. Is a 71-year-old who still rides his bike frail? Maybe we’re fragile because we’re not strong enough to fight back or because we’re susceptible to heart attacks or falls that can kill us.

Or maybe we’re easier prey to bike robbers because we’re older and can’t put up much of a fight. Like sidewalk thieves who grab the purse off the shoulder of an older woman, guessing she’s not strong enough to hold on.

I still don’t know what happened to cause the bicyclist’s death, but I did finally read that a man in his 30s was arrested. Under the law, the alleged perpetrator could get an additional charge for an attack on a “vulnerable” person, which includes people with disabilities as well as the elderly.

And now, being a “vulnerable” person means being able to get Covid-19 vaccine shots ahead of the general population. Because people over 70 are dying in greater numbers than other groups, it makes sense. I may not want to admit to being vulnerable or fragile, but reality–whether in the form of Covid or riding a bike—indicates otherwise.

7 thoughts on “That Could Have Been Me

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  1. Wow, that is a creepy thing to read about. And yes, we will wonder what actually caused the death of the bicyclist. The media really needs to rethink the use of “elderly.”

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  2. Thanks, Kathy, for sharing your thought-provoking aging journal.
    The writer could have described the victim as “one of our (precious) elders” instead of “elderly.” “Elderly” brings to mind an old, fragile, vulnerable person. The term “elder” could bring to mind a person who is valued for wisdom. In our culture, however, this is rarely the case.
    What can we do to help change this at the grassroots level so future (our children, grandchildren) U.S. elders will be respected just as they are in other societies, such as Italy where “It is good to be a senior retired person in Italy. They get all the respect because of their long experience, wide knowledge and worldly wisdom.” source: https://www.lifeinitaly.com/real-estate/moving/senior-living-in-italy)?
    Perhaps it would help if we “elders” submit editorials after reading those types of local news articles?
    Thoughts?
    Thanks again,
    Aileen (Wood sent me your link quite a while ago.)

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    1. Aileen, thanks for your thoughtful response and questions. Ageism is something I’ve thought about a lot. I think we live in a society that is afraid of death and dying. So younger people are fearful or even horrified by older people’s obvious signs of decay. Also, I grew up with grandparents who lived close by, so they were part of my life. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore, so younger people don’t really have close relationships with older people. And I think there’s a huge digital divide between older and younger people, so young people (I’ve noticed) are scornful of our lack of knowledge about all things tech. It’s wonderful that older people are revered in Italy, and I wonder if this is because their culture is more relaxed and focused on enjoying life, whereas we live in a culture more focused on getting ahead, so relationships aren’t as important. I’m not sure. And I’m not sure if writing editorials would help, because our attitudes about elders is so ingrained in our culture. I think one thing that would help is for older people to be more involved in the community, whether that means marching in protests against climate change or volunteering to tutor children (after the pandemic is over). In that way, younger people could see how vital we are. (And it strikes me as ironic that our present and incoming president are old men.) Your thoughts?

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  3. Thanks for sharing your helpful ideas, Kathy.
    Engaging in community events would provide favorable visibility. Volunteering to tutor children or assist in a classroom or field trips, and not moving to 55+ communities that reinforces separation instead of connection would help those whose grandparents are distant or deceased to experience kind-hearted, lively elders first-hand.
    Of course, not succumbing to cultural imperatives re dyeing hair, covering flaccid necks with scarves/turtlenecks, purchasing “anti-aging” (ha!) products which result in even more ageism ads (infinite loop), etc., could pull a few strands out of the ageism (cover ’em up) blanket that seeks to make aging almost invisible. Sad that Hollywood stars willing to age naturally are incredibly rare.

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    1. Aileen, I remember being on a bus in Portugal many years ago and seeing many older people sitting in plazas or at bus stops. Their lined faces had so much more depth and character than the younger people’s faces. Our old faces and bodies should be a sign of wisdom, not something to be altered, I agree. I just saw a current movie on Netflix with Sophia Loren (called, I think, “the Life Ahead”), and she looks her age–in her 80s now–and her face revealed all the sadness, joy and weariness of someone her age. It’s sad that many older woman, especially, feel the need to cover up that wisdom with facelifts, make-up, etc.

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  4. Kathy, I don’t know how to send an email to you, so thought I’d share this with you via a post in case you haven’t seen it.
    How do we deal with losses, not just as elders, but losses at any age?
    “The world over is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven! In honor of this milestone, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic is partnering with the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival to screen the HBO Documentary Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.”
    The film portrays “lives (that) weave a sonata over three centuries, about all we can discover once we push beyond what has been lost.”
    Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements: https://watch.eventive.org/rmwfcinema/play/5fd12ff4fbe6c500800e0f5d

    I don’t know how long it will be available. It is free today and after started needs to be watched within 48 hours.

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