Venkata: Running on empty

Our grandparents’ hunger is quiet and ignored.

Morgan La Casse

Morgan La Casse

by Uma Venkata

The elderly, like all of us, never wanted to be a burden.

In the United States, one out of 11 Americans age 60 or over goes hungry. This is a lot of people. One of the most startling points is that many of them have adult children to whom they are too embarrassed to reach out for support. This is not true for all seniors, but more than just a few.

It’s jarring to hear. I tried to imagine that happening to my own parents. It was such an emotionally wracking situation that I still cannot ever consider it a realistic situation. Decades from now, after everything parents have done for their children, it’s heartbreaking that they would not ask their adult children for help about something as simple as food. But the divide between the adult generations is deep enough in the United States today that I’m not surprised a symptom is that elderly people face food insecurity.

The U.S. has an admirable individualism streak. Whether it’s a net negative or positive is a wider conversation, but one unintended consequence is that the elderly population is essentially an invisible hungry demographic. To this group, asking their children for help may not only make them feel like a burden or nuisance, but also probably becomes a point of pride. Collecting charity, especially from their own family, can be a blow to their ego and image.

There are plenty of cultural factors that feed into this. One significant one has been the advent of social security. When FDR, my favorite socialist, signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, an intent was to make it not impossible for Americans to live out their post-career lives without being dependent on anyone else. Essentially, it is a mandatory saving plan, where current earners pay into their own future social security funds. Retirement used to be a thing to fear, because it meant the end of income. Because of social security, no one alive today remembers that.

But social security exists right now and accounts for 90 percent or more of income for 21 percent of married and 43 percent of unmarried elderly. Social security allocations, as they are today, are no vast sum of money. A third of elderly households have no money left or fall into debt monthly after meeting essentials with social security payments. Life expectancy is at an all-time high, but so are medical expenses. And what with distance from family, friends, general loneliness, financial stress and hunger, the long final phase of life can be quietly grueling. 

I would not wish that on anyone. Not my parents, grandparents, neighbors, the senior Gophers auditing on campus. But it is a reality in our culture today. The popular play seems to be about which home we’ll put mom in, as opposed to whose kids she’ll help raise.

I think the takeaway is that youngsters like ourselves should be cognizant of the quiet suffering that our elderly friends and family can go through. Their hunger matters as much as kids’ does. Just because we don’t hear about it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Families belong together, and at the very least, hunger belongs nowhere.