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