What Sequestration Means for Elders
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Mr. Rogers For Grownups

My brother and I were too old for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. We were adults already when the children's program began in 1968, and since neither of us had kids, we had no reason to see it.

That doesn't mean I know nothing of the gentle, soft-spoken television host. A friend worked on his program for a time and Rogers appeared once or twice on a television program I produced.

Earlier this week, TGB reader Carmen Silva emailed a video with a short clip of Mr. Rogers speaking with poet Kenneth Koch.

According to poetryfoundation.org, the video is part of a longer conversation between Rogers and Koch that back in the day was broadcast on a prime time show, Old Friends, New Friends, Rogers created for adults.

”[He] interviewed people about their search for meaning in life. Notable guests included Milton Berle, Hoagy Carmichael, and William Sloane Coffin, plus lesser-known figures like Lesley Frost (second child of Robert and Elinor Frost) and Rogers’s own barber.”

Now, on behalf of The Fred Rogers Company, artist and writer Paul Zelevansky is producing from these conversations a series of 60-second videos called Mr. Rogers for Adults that, he says, address

“...psychological, philosophical, and epistemological concerns of social life and personal responsibility,”

At least one of them, the one with Koch, which was recorded at a senior center many decades ago, speaks to a condition that is particularly poignant in regard to elders. Take a look:

“...all people,” says Koch, “like to feel that they are a necessary part of life, necessary in the world or as you said, life would be poorer if they weren't in it.”

That's not too difficult during our primary midlife activities, raising the next generation who will carry on the work of the world and contributing (hopefully something useful) through our jobs, careers and professions.

It gets harder to believe about ourselves as we grow old. Just about everyone who lives past age 50 or 60 knows what it is like to become invisible to those around us. Age discrimination in the workplace is a painful example of no longer being necessary or wanted that becomes worse, affecting larger numbers of older workers in hard economic times, as now.

The snippet of conversation in the video is too short to even hint at what Rogers and Koch said about having or finding that sense of feeling necessary so let's do it ourselves today.

One obvious solution is volunteering and that certainly works for people who are capable. But what of those are no longer are? What other ways can people feel needed and wanted?

I was still working when I began this blog nearly a decade ago and that it would, in time, give me a strong sense of purpose – which is, of course, a large part of what feeling necessary is – did not enter my mind.

At first, I used it as a place to write down what I was learning about aging from my research and while I wasn't looking, it turned me into an advocate for old people. I am happy with that and for the foreseeable future, the blog gets enough attention from readers and elsewhere that I feel I contribute something.

Without TGB, I would undoubtedly find something else to do that would fulfill me (I'm just that way) but I strongly suspect this need of the ego for purpose and recognition declines as we get closer to death. Or, rather, it should.

(To take a bit of a detour here), in her book of five essays on the mysteries of age titled, Old Age, Helen M. Luke speaks to this in a section about Prospero's epilogue spoken to the audience at the end of Shakespeare's The Tempest:

”We are made aware of a startling paradox,” she writes. “The moment of letting go, of daring to stand alone, stripped of power and prestige, bereft of any sense of worth or superior knowledge, is at the same time the moment when such a man or woman becomes conscious of his absolute need of 'the other' both in the this world and in the Beyond.

“A choice between two ways then lies ahead. We may either continue in our last years to cling to our past achievements and worn-out values, thus sinking eventually into complete dependence on others, on collective opinions, demand and attitudes; or we may confront our growing weakness and loss of energy, together with out past rejections, sins and blindness (the “Caliban” within), and so approach that kind of free dependence on 'the other' which brings us to the meaning of forgivemess and to kinship with all things.”

Okay, I'm getting carried away. But that's where the tiny, little video clip of Fred Rogers and Kenneth Koch sent me – to pull out Luke's book and re-read, reconsider some of that particular essay.

Now it's your turn. What do Rogers and Koch have you thinking?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joyce Benedict: Books Saved My Life


My thoughts were provoked by your passage about "letting go," and I was reminded of my dear grandmother. She was alert up until about six months before she died. I think she made a "conscious" decision to "let go," since about that time she stopped reading newspapers (she'd always been a news hound) and wouldn't even watch TV news. It was a gradual process -- until she refused food. And then it was painful...mostly for those of us who loved her. However, at some point, when that happens to a loved one (especially at her age 92), you begin to feel selfish for trying to intervene.

At any rate, interesting, thought-provoking post!

It is true that old people may have to re-tool to discern their "purpose" in life, now that careers and childraising are over.

However, in a larger sense, people of all ages ache to feel loved, valued, respected. I believe we should go through our lives cognizant of that need in others. We should do what we can, each day, to show our respect and warmth to those who are put in our path.

If this sounds syrupy, I'm sorry. It is what I believe.

I was struck by your phrase "the need of the ego for purpose and recognition." I experience those as two very different things.

Like you, Ronni, my working life as been about creating contexts (TV; campaigns) where somebody else got the recognition. I've always been more okay with that than not and I suspect that is a good preparation for getting older: we are less and less likely to get recognition.

As to purpose -- the moment when purpose amounts to merging with beingness is too deep for me to contemplate, though I hope and imagine we get there.

I don't worry about recognition. But while I've gotten used to being alone and entertaining myself, sometimes I need to be around people. I realized that this when I worked to elect Obama. And the good news is that Organizing for America will be keeping me busy -- probably forever. And that's okay -- they're nice people and it's not just old folks.

I am firmly of the opinion that human society needs its elders—in fact it needs them like never before. It needs true elder wisdom more than it ever did if life on Earth is to survive at all. So yes, we are most certainly needed. But if we look at this in terms of individuals wanting to feel needed, then I think we are missing the point. The deepest, most important task of this third stage of our lives is surely to transcend those sorts of egoic needs and to understand oneself, more and more, as part of something greater than the individual self—cells in the body of a living planet, if your spirituality is green like mine, or drops in a mighty ocean if you need a metaphor for what some call 'God.' Old age is not about personal purpose, it is about aligning ourselves with some larger purpose and focusing entirely on whatever it is we are yearning to give to that rather than what we expect to feel as a result.

For me, the first inkling that I was becoming invisible was that it was physical - that people no longer saw me in the literal sense. Gradually I realized the invisibility goes deeper than that, and my reaction was a kind of muted outrage. I still feel that at times, but I'm struggling to quell the outrage and replace it with a stronger sense of who I am to myself - and to God, however one defines God - so that my invisibility to others doesn't matter as much.

I will never forget the day Fred Rogers died. I was scheduled to facilitate a lecture in the morning, and as I greeted the audience, what came out of my mouth was "It is a sad day in the neighborhood." People applauded the late Mr. Rogers, and several shed tears of quiet sorrow. I was one of those. I grew up as an adult watching Mr. Rogers with my kids. If there was ever a day I was feeling a bit low, this feeling would soon subside as I curled in with my beauties, and watched his show. How else would I have learned how crayons are made! The world is a better place because of his kind wisdom. Thank you for this piece.

Julie Fraser

Ask anyone (over a certain age) who it is who wears tennis shoes and a cardigan sweater and they will tell you, "Mister Rogers!"

Before Mister Rogers was Captain Kangaroo who talked to the kids.

I go about gently pushing back conventional square box thinking, acting as if there is room for everyone on the dance floor of life.

Acting as if it's all good often forces others to look hard at themselves and think twice about what seniors should or shouldn't do.

There is a sense of "and you thought you had us all figured out."

Think again.

Since you mention Captain Kangaroo, I can't resist telling this little story even though it has nothing to do with today's post.

Many years ago, I produced a local TV show at WCBS-TV in New York. It was a live show and our studio was next door to the one where Captain Kangaroo taped his program.

One day, we're in the middle of the live show when I hear "clip-clop-clip-clop-clip-clop" coming closer and closer to where I was standing by the cameras.

Before I could even figure out what was going on, two beautiful, cute, little baby lambs scampered up onto the stage with the host and whoever the guest was. They had escaped from Captain Kangaroo's taping and somehow made it through the door to our studio.

No one ever could say how happened (those doors are heavy) and now, looking back, I wonder if someone did it on purpose just for fun.

Delightful, and you even prodded my brain into thinking. Yes, I made a big difference by helping create "Border Park." Yes, I think I made a bigger but quieter difference the years I worked for the AIDS Quilt. Now I wonder if what I do makes a big enough difference. (Selfcentered me.) Always we retool.

I can remember watching Mr. Rogers in Pittsburg in 1955 so you aren't too old at all.

Oh, how thrilling to see this whole blog and all the comments -

I had the privilege of being in a position to keep Fred Rogers on air, when our PBS station in LA, head of the buying combine, was not going to purchase 'The Neighborhood'. I wrote a very professional letter on our very professional stationary - FACT (Focusing Awareness on Children and Television - non-profit) and asked KCET who they were going to buy...so they changed their mind.....Fred and I became colleagues ... what a special guy he was, a friend and a pal. I miss him always and know clearly what his legacy has been....from hundreds of interviews I have done over the years.

Oh, Ronni, what a great, stimulating and wise post! And I thoroughly appreciate all the posts, too. I agree with Leonora that wanting to feel needed is a constant at any age. (Of course, actually being needed, full-time say, can be very stressful!)
I've saved this particular post, as I have certain others of yours, because I know that I will want to re-read it and reflect on it several more times.
You and your contributions are definitely needed as far as I'm concerned.

"all the comments".

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