On “Othering”

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the LeadingAge national conference. LeadingAge is the organization that represents more than 6000 nonprofit providers of housing and services to older adults and their annual meeting always draws a big crowd (more than 7000 this year) and is packed with great ideas and thought-provoking presentations and conversations.

This year was no exception and those of us who attended have been talking about our biggest “takeaways” from the meeting, those things that resonated with us and that will be of value going forward. As you would expect, we had some great ideas for programmatic and service enhancements and some innovative ways in which our colleagues are leveraging new ideas and new technologies.

One of the biggest takeaways for me this year was the presentation by one of the keynote speakers, Wes Moore. Moore is a decorated Army officer who is also a successful author, television producer and more. One of the books he has written, and is known for, is a book called “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.”

Both Wes Moores grew up in the same city, within blocks of each other, and close to the same age. They both faced similar tough challenges in their youth and one of them, the author, ended up with a successful life and career, the other ended up serving a life sentence as the result of a robbery and homicide.

Wes Moore, the author, had read about the man who shared his name when that man was arrested and later sent to prison. For a long time he wondered about this man and eventually began to correspond with him, to visit him in prison, to interview both he and others. All of that culminated in his book.

What he shared with all of us who work with older adults, were really lessons from this story applied to elder care. He talked about the fact that the fastest growing population of homeless people is the elderly and helped us to see that it is not “someone else” who is struggling, it is someone who may be just like us, just like our loved one. For one person, a moment in time, the choice of one fork in the road versus another, can make (as Robert Frost would say) “all the difference.”

And while we know that life can change at any moment, what also stuck with me, and has continued to be in my thoughts, is the idea of “other.” It is easy for us to accept things that happen to other people, circumstances that affect someone else, to understand that they are someone “other” than us, with a life “other” than the one we live. It gives us a separation and, perhaps, a sense of security that really doesn’t exist.

That “other” could always be us or someone we care about; someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether innocently or by choice; someone who develops health or cognitive issues that just “happen” and could not be prevented; someone experiencing something out of their control. Those “others,” “those people,” could as easily be us as someone else.

What if we, as a society, stopped thinking about elders as “others,” if we stopped labeling those with cognitive impairments as “those people?” What if we accepted that aging is part of life and that each of our journeys will be unique? What a different world of understanding we could create.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is chair-elect of LeadingAge and past chair of the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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