Growing into Old Age
INTERESTING STUFF – 1 February 2014

Korean Elders v. McDonald's

It is a long-established fact that isolation in old age is deadly. As the late geriatrician Robert N. Butler – who invented the term “ageism” in 1968 – wrote in his final book, The Longevity Prescription,

”Connectivity enhances health...the link between isolation and suicide was firmly established long ago, suggesting that, at the most elemental level, other people give us a reason to live.

“Each year new research appears, some from clinicians and epidemiologists, some from social scientists and psychologists. These researchers have identified ties between strong social networks and lowered risk of alcoholism, depression, and even arthritis.”

For the past five years or so, elders in a Korean community in Flushing, Queens, New York, have been hanging out together daily a local McDonald's. Then last November, the restaurant began calling 911 for the police to evict the old people and signs were posted stating that patrons had only 20 minutes to drink their coffee and leave.

According to a New York Times report in mid-January,

“The restaurant says the people who colonize the seats on a daily basis are quashing business, taking up tables for hours while splitting a small packet of French fries ($1.39); the group say they are customers and entitled to take their time. A lot of time.”

The Koreans, reports The Times,

”...say it is convenience that draws them from the solitude of their nearby homes to spend the day sitting there in the Big Mac-scented air. Many are widowed, or like Jee Woong Lim, 81, who arrived in America two years ago from Seoul, say they are in need of company.

“They are almost without exception nattily dressed, in suits or dress slacks, brightly colored ties or sweaters, fedoras and well-shined shoes.”

The standoff continued over the next couple of weeks with police officers regularly throwing the Koreans out of the restaurant.

There is a senior center a mile and a half from the McDonald's and other fast food restaurants even closer to this McDonald's but the elder Koreans return daily to the same one.

A couple of them tried to explain to the Times reporter why they like this particular place:

”...Sang Yong Park, 76, and his friend, Il Ho Park, 76, [said] they come every single day to gossip, chat about politics back home and in their adopted land, hauling themselves up from the banquettes with their canes to step outside for short cigarillo breaks.

“And they could not say why they keep coming back — after a short walk around the block to blow off steam — every time the officers remove them. They said they had each been ousted three times so far."

Although it is easy to understand McDonald's point of view, I wondered from first reading if there might be some ageism involved in the dispute.

All over the United States, younger adults frequent Starbucks and other coffee establishments that with free Wi-Fi encourage many hours of working at their laptops often on one cup of coffee.

In fact, on a couple of occasions when I was meeting a friend at the local Starbucks, we had to go elsewhere because all the tables were taken up with singles staring intently on their computer screens. Still, none of the reports mentioned the possible age issue.

Back at the Queens McDonald's, a solution was finally found:

”Last week,” reports The Times, “Ron Kim, a New York State assemblyman, brokered a détente: The restaurant promised not to call the police if the Koreans made room during crowded peak hours.”

Before that resolution, the dispute had made headlines as far away at Seoul, Korea, and led to a call for a worldwide boycott of McDonald's.

It caused so much response even outside New York City that Michael Kimmelman, a culture and society reporter at The New York Times looked into why this particular McDonald's means so much this group of elder Koreans.

What he found is not earthshakingly new to anyone who is old or knows anything about old people. But they are important for society in general to understand about how people not only like to live, but how they need to live:

“Older city dwellers on tight budgets who don’t own automobiles or no longer drive want inexpensive meeting places within walking distance of their homes. The elderly Koreans at McDonald’s, with one exception, all told me that they live within two blocks of the restaurant.”
“They don’t use the local senior center, they said, because it’s in a church a mile and a half away...'There’s a van that will take us there,' Kun Pae Yim, 86, one of the McDonald’s regulars, told me. 'We’re grateful for the offer. But we are not schoolchildren or government workers. We want to see our friends when we choose.'

“So independence is a factor. It’s a big part of why anyone lives in the city.”
“...people don’t want to be alone. So they find a sense of belonging in what they think of as their neighborhood, which tends to shrink as they age. The Flushing branch library, free and welcoming, the busiest in New York, is always packed with young and old people, but it’s almost a mile away.”
“Absent a senior center within walking distance, McDonald’s has become, by default, their home away from home...McDonald’s is a ready-made NORC [naturally occurring retirement community].”
“McDonald’s is the NORC that has bound together the elderly Koreans. Most of them didn’t know one another until they visited the restaurant. They were drawn there by proximity and price, and they have stayed for the companionship.

“'It’s how we keep track of each other now,' Mr. Yim told me. 'Everybody checks in at McDonald’s at least once a day, so we know they’re O.K.'”

Crucial, human needs – proximity, affordability, camaraderie - are being met for this community of elders at McDonald's and hurray to management for finding a way to support them.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Clifford Rothband: Old Man Memories


This is a normal human impulse. I see retired people gathering in the food court of the mall. They walk around the mall for exercise, and sit and chat in the food court. When I was growing up, the old men farmers would gather in the early morning at the feed store around the wood stove.

Interesting! My cousin runs a tiny neighborhood restaurant and has a problem with people wanting to use the tables for offices away from home and he had to set time limits because it was cutting into his profits too much. So I can see both sides. The lesson here is if we're going to take up table space without spending a lot of money, do it at off-peak hours.

I'm struck by the "walking distance" aspect of this story. Most of us probably live places where community that we don't have to drive to is unimaginable. Great that these folks have found a suitable spot.

I read and ran this same story on my own blog last week and, while at first glance one would tend to be on the side of the elderly Koreans, there is another side to why many of these fast food restaurants do not welcome seniors with open arms.
Besides taking up valuable table space and buying little or nothing of what is sold at these places, many of these folks use the condiments bar, and the napkin holders, and the salt and pepper shakers and anything else that is not nailed down as their personal "supply room" for re-stocking their own kitchens.
One manager of a Roy Rodger's (not too far from the "Korean" McDonald's) told me he had to eliminate the open "Fixins bar" and put all the napkins and salt shakers behind the counter because he could not keep up with the pilferage he knew was done by his older patrons.

A story, with a happy ending.

But did anyone else, any reporter, note what you mentioned...? The young who sit at Starbucks...? And wonder, if there ageism was involved, in this matter?

OK, I'll just be glad a compromise has been reached.


I understand the need to keep each piece of independence that a person can. I struggle to do this on a daily basis. The elderly services are wonderful but nothing beats being able to make our own choices and act on them-even if it means getting down the street and to a meeting place that is set up for all age groups. I know it helps me to see all age groups as much as possible. I live in an Independent Living situation set up for elderly and crave being able to see that there are still all age groups in the world. I accept the help I need gratefully, but I constantly try to hold on to the independence I have. I totally understand why these men and women would prefer this meeting place to a senior center. I am sure senior centers are wonderful, but nothing replaces independence and feeling like a part of life of all ages.

The elders here congregate at McD's, too.

Sometimes I wish that there was some place like that near me!

I can see both sides of this story and I doubt that ageism has much to do with it.

McDonalds obviously work on a very small profit margin and when someone who is not spending much money (if any) continually occupy the available seating space it certainly cuts into the profit. I think the manager would have the same attitude if the people who take up the space were bored housewives.

Apparently the elders, who have all the time in the world, are not willing to adapt their schedule to take a van to a place where they can gather and be welcome. I do find that a bit troubling.

I have observed a feeling of entitlement from some elders and I think this attitude helps to foster resentment from the young. We need to look at our part in creating a culture of ageism, too.

what this reminds me of is how Germans handle such a situation, whatever the age or make-up of the people: many restaurants have a so-called Stammtisch, a table that is available for a certain group of people who regularly get together. Often just to talk. Sometimes to play chess or cards. And they tend to stay longer than people at a restaurant. Especially a fast-food place. The Stammtisch is such an old custom, has been around, I suspect, for centuries.. I am glad this particular situation was resolved, but I am sorry it ever had to happen.

The Koreans could meet in a different place each day, there are bagel shops, a Burger King, Dunkin Doughnuts and many Chinese and Korean restaurants in that immediate area. Variety is good you know.

My guess is that the ethnic restaurants have no tolerance for them and so they play the "poor old senior" card to draw sympathy.

I tend to doubt this is ageism. No business is going to welcome squatters who take up space that paying customers might occupy. I can understand the gathering, but if I participated I would feel obliged to spend enough money to justify my presence. At least one Starbucks in the Denver area has removed the power outlets near its tables to keep computer users from camping so long.

On the other hand, I am envious of those who have gathering places within walking distance (or even a lot of neighbors of similar age). One must make compromises when choosing a place to live, and "walkability" was something I had to sacrifice.

Is this all we are here for is the bottom line??? Where is our humanity?....Our lives have become way too much about money and not about caring. I do understand the economics of running a restaurant as we have owned three of them, but there are always going to be people that come in and order coffee and sit around for a long time taking up space. I hardly think that the Golden Arches Supper Club is going broke by any stretch of the imagination...and the guy complaining about the elderly pocketing the condiments....write it off to charity and let them keep doing it....We have become so oriented to money that we forget that maybe people just can't afford anything like salt, pepper and sugar. ...I do like Ruth Ellen's idea about a special table....Is there a number anywhere about how many Korean guests are frequenting the restaurant on a daily basis?? We have a new McD Supper Club going in to our little town of 2600 this spring....I would love to do research on cholesterol levels before and after...Smartly enough they are going in right by the freeway exit so the only way to get there is by car....that oughta keep those coffee swilling elderly out of there... Disgruntled in Minnesnowta!!

The McD near me is frequented by seniors, but they play their cards right by stopping in when there are few teens or families. Seniors buy muffins, coffee, lunch, breakfast and talk, but not for hours.

I taught the sons of this McD, and they treat everyone with respect.

Free coffee refills.

My sis and I drop by for coffee on occasion. This McD also hires seniors as managers and hired a senior woman to walk around make sure everything was comfy.

She was there for years.

On the other hand, while on a road trip, we stopped at a McD for breakfast and observed a senior woman take enough serviettes to wipe down a submarine.

She shoved them in her bulky bag.

Her husband looked at her and said "they saw you do that."

She just kept walking, all lopsided..

Fortunately I found a place to live that is within walking distance of our small downtown several coffee shops and small restaurants. A big plus is the library is close and serves coffee free & in the summer there is an outdoor patio where people can congregate. I think both parties in this could loosen up a little.

Starbucks charges outrageous prices; therefore they don't worry much about patrons staying for a long time. For some years I met with a group of old buys at a MacDonalds. We bought cheap senior coffee and not much else. The management didn't care, because we came in at mid-morning when the place wasn't busy. Trying to make some sort of bigotry out of this stuff is a stretch.

I'm with Darlene on this one. It's just a shame they had to have a mediator to accomplish what common sense should have.

In our small community, different group of seniors meet; some rotate restaurants, some go to the same place (yes, McDonald's is one)every time. It's a matter of mobility and comfort and familiarity.

The senior centers here seem to be cliquish, and many don't feel comfortable there if they're not in the card-playing clique.

I don't see it as a matter of race, but rather of community. I don't know about this particular neighborhood, but it seems to me the management missed an opportunity which, luckily, someone helped him see: welcome them, but ask them to please come at less busy times, perhaps even by offering a special at those better times of day. Make it a community.

As for people, not just seniors, walking off with condiments - I've noticed people of all ages do this, even people who have enough money to pay for their own.

Dear Ronni:

I saw this news item on another site but when you posted it here, I felt compelled to comment:

I'm glad to hear that rebellion is not merely for the young. Although I fall a few years short of these customers, I can certainly identify with their need to have a place that is "all their own". Nobody ever appreciates the gift freedom of movement (and visitation) is until it is lost. It's a good thing that McDonalds was able to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to this stand-off. They have enough things to be embarrassed about with the content of their food and the sorry wages they pay their workers.

A regular "lurker"-Ann Watkins

I think we seniors can not demand respect and independence one minute and then , by our behavior, ask to be babied! We all know you cannot hang out for hours anywhere where customers come in and out needing their turn at the space. I do not see McDonald's response to this as "ageism". It is just a fact of life that we older folks have our fair share of bad mannered folk among us, even criminals! Being old is NOT a license to ask people to embrace your bad manners just because you are on a limited budget. No. Seniors can misbehave just like any other age group. I don't care what our circumstance are, we can still set a good example for the rising generation.
Seniors do need to congregate and there are many places for that other than McDonald's.

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