May 12, 2020 News & Features » Cover Story

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Finding Elderhood 

Richmonders weigh in on growing old, confronting ageism and how the city can help everyone reach longevity.

click to enlarge Arnita Thompson

Scott Elmquist

Arnita Thompson

How old is old enough to sacrifice someone for the economy?

Too many of us are hearing this question asked as the coronavirus continues to take more lives each day. Even government officials are pondering out loud whether older adults may be acceptable collateral damage in reopening the economy.

The Longevity Project for a greater Richmond is doing its best to counter this dangerous thinking by pursuing a broader mission to make our region a great place for all to grow old. We are, in fact, all aging. And we all deserve to reach longevity without being made to feel like a burden.

It has yet to be true in Richmond. It’s been called the longevity gap. A 2015 study by the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health says the gap is as wide as 20 years between Westover Hills and Gilpin Court. Meanwhile, the average lifespan in the Museum District, a majority-white area was 77 years, while majority black areas in the city’s East End and South Side see residents with life spans of 67 and 69 years.

The pandemic has revealed and exacerbated disparate conditions of health care access within the systems serving older adults. Older adults represent the fastest growing segment of the region’s population. This demographic shift demands transformed practices and policies, systems and structures. Right now, those structures continue to maintain inequities in longevity and health outcomes.

As a university-community collective impact initiative, the Longevity Project’s approach toward community change seeks equitable individual outcomes and removal of structural barriers so that quality of life is improved now and in the future. It works to achieve longevity equity through system-level change, educational programming and community convening to share tools of transformation.

The coronavirus has made that message more important than ever. Co-lead Thelma Watson, executive director at Senior Connections, The Capital Area Agency on Aging, says the pandemic has further revealed inequitable health outcomes faced by the region’s older residents.

“This pandemic has shown what many of us have seen happening below the surface of our collective discussions around aging for years,” she says. “We now have an opportunity to learn from what’s happened and find ways to fix these inequities.”

Co-lead E. Ayn Welleford, a professor of gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the lessons and changes that emerge must center the experience of elders through their own voices. “There are too many examples of planning for elders without elders at the table driving the discussion,” she says. “We cannot plan for our future possible selves without pioneers in positive longevity, and that requires elder voices.”

The Longevity Project for a greater Richmond asked a few area seniors about growing up or ending up in Richmond and reaching elderhood here. Their answers follow.


 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Arnita Thompson

Growing up in Richmond? I loved it. This was when times were hard for people that looked like me, but we had a strong sense of trust in each other; which is why we felt so connected. It was more of a family-type thing, we were more together then. More of a community. Growing up in Fulton was like a dreamland.

The few of us left, we’re still together. That part is still in them – looking out for each other. My children, Hassan and Janeequa, are very loyal as well. They are my drive to keep going. The doctors and nurses who come to visit, I look forward to seeing them.

What makes me comfortable now? Being by myself, having time to think on my own. I like going to the mall and meeting new people, laughing and talking, getting their opinions.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I can’t move around the way I want to. I like the idea of being able to do things, but I’m willing to do whatever is necessary to be safe right now. (As told to Janei Lofty).



click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
John Countryman

I’ve been asked what it’s like to grow old in Richmond. I like the sound of that, because growing old is precisely how I’d describe it. Being 71 doesn’t mean I’ve stopped growing – creatively, spiritually, and many other ways.

I was 32 years old when my wife and I moved to Richmond for the first time. It was 1980 and I was focused on my career. I had no thought of growing old anywhere at all, let alone in Richmond. My parents were entering their 60s, and I expect that as a product of our ageist culture I considered them “old” in an unflattering way. That’s laughable to me now, of course, because my 60s were some of the best and most productive years of my life. I can see much better now that my dad had just begun to hit his stride, running three businesses and attracting some modest celebrity. As it turned out, after nine years we left Richmond for an opportunity in Georgia and did not return until 2017 when I was, ironically, in my late 60s.

In some respects, Richmond was a very different place in the ’80s than it is today. It’s not simply that there are more and better restaurants, more bike lanes, or a handsomer Fan District. There are visible signs that Richmond is becoming more progressive, and I see increasing evidence of inclusion and diversity in many sectors. Most recently, for example, the Market at 25th Street and the Health Hub are making a difference in the East End. The newly installed “Rumors of War” on the recently renamed Arthur Ashe Boulevard are also encouraging developments.

With regard to opportunities for individuals my age and older, I’ve been able to make a meaningful contribution as a volunteer instructor in different settings: The Shepherd’s Center, the Osher Center and the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, two of which have emerged since the ’80s. I have also been especially impressed with the staff and programming at Senior Connections, which is dedicated to helping older adults maintain independence and quality of life as we age.

And yet, as I write, an email from a state legislator reporting that all of the COVID-19 deaths to date in the City of Richmond are African-American, places in high relief the racial disparities that remain in our city due to social determinants of susceptibility to illnesses.

The current pandemic has brought to the fore some of the worst displays of ageism in Richmond. I’m just finishing up a master’s degree in gerontology at VCU, and our department chair has observed that some are saying only older adults are affected. It’s not accurate, of course, and alarmingly dismissive of the many contributions we make to our city, not to mention our inherent worth as human beings.

Or consider those saying it’s acceptable for us to die in order for the economy to remain robust? Despite the many hopeful indications of progress, we still have a long way to go.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Michael Pierce and Ronald Lee

We both grew up in rural Virginia and came to Richmond to go to VCU -- Michael in 1968, and Ron four years later. We met each other in 1974, at a birthday Michael threw for his roommate, Frederick Fulmer, at the little house Michael, Frederick and Caleb Davis rented in Oregon Hill. Michael had already graduated from VCU Arts, and Ron was a sophomore in psychology and lived in the VCU dorm, but most of his friends were also in the arts; we quickly became inseparable.

Living together as a gay, mixed race couple in Oregon Hill wasn’t the easiest thing. We both remember children throwing bricks at us when walking together in the mornings -- Michael on his way to his file clerk job in state government and Ron going to the VCU campus to go to class. But somehow, we just kept going.

We soon set up a household together in a rental apartment just west of the Virginia Museum, and over the years moved from apartment to apartment – Ron calculates that we lived in 12. Ron still has photographs of each of the places we’ve lived over the years. We purchased our first house together in 1991, at the time the legal documents required for the joint house purchase were the closest thing there was to a legal marriage.

In 1994, after we had been together for twenty years, we were married in our faith community, in the Richmond Friends Meetinghouse, on Kensington Avenue, surrounded by a hundred or so family and friends. Finally, almost 20 years after what we consider that “real” marriage, in 2013 we were legally married in New York City. Through a series of amazing coincidences, instead of getting married in the New York City Hall, we ended up in the chambers of New York Supreme Court Justice Milton A. Tingling, who performed our marriage.

Justice Tingling asked where we were from, and when we told him “Virginia” he immediately responded: “You guys have broken every law on the books!” Then he got us to give our cell phone to his assistants who took photos of the whole process while we recited the same vows that we had recited almost twenty years before in 1994 at the Richmond Friends Meetinghouse.

Through our 46 years together, we have always presented as a couple. And aside from those early days in Oregon Hill, we can hardly remember times when that gave us difficulties. We both love the fact that Richmond is steeped in history (and sometimes a not so pleasant past), but because of that, there is also the opposite: a progressive, thriving arts community that continues to welcome us both as a couple.

We briefly escaped having to deal with COVID–19 in Richmond. Michael had been awarded an artist residency at Cite Internationale de Arts in Paris that was to have run from the beginning of March through the end of April 2020. We arrived in Paris on March 3 and quickly set up house in a small, 600-square-foot studio apartment – Michael with his wall to make his rabbit drawings on (based on images from the Unicorn Tapestries in the Museum of the Middle Ages) and Ron with his table for designing and making clothes. We had a lovely two weeks of setting up house, living and working in that fifth-floor studio apartment overlooking the River Seine with a view of the towers of Notre Dame. But into the second week there, the virus threats grew stronger and when museums, cafes and restaurants began to close we gave in and returned home on an almost empty plane. We had said when the bakeries closed, it was time to go. So, home we came.

Once home we were under mandatory self-quarantine for 14 days, just as the lockdown for most Virginians was put in place. We are still both healthy and fine, but Michael is about to turn 70 and Ron is 66, so we are still sheltering in place. Ron is making masks and mailing them to family and friends, and Michael is trying to revisit those rabbit drawings that he started in Paris. We are grateful to still be a part of Richmond Friends Meeting where we participate in an Aging Group that care for each other.

We find living together for 46 years in Richmond has been just what a good life should be.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Judy Nelson

Looking back over the past 45 years, I would say I never expected to spend my entire adult life in Richmond. Maybe that’s why I haven’t chosen a final resting place, which would place me here for eternity. Having grown up in a small town 20 miles out of New York City, a place much like some older sections of Richmond, and gone to college in Vermont, I never imagined myself south of the Jersey Shore. So when my partner (now husband of 45 years) asked me to accompany him here, I declined. I was living in Manhattan in an affordable studio, had a wonderful job, many friends and interests and my extended family within easy reach – and where even was Richmond, Virginia? I was to find out three years later.

During those first years of marriage, grad school, jobs, West of the Boulevard apartments and even starting a family, I didn’t believe we were permanent Richmonders. Even enjoying our neighborhood, the one with the big Fourth of July block party and 40 kids, I missed my family and the sounds of the big city. Given the choice between hearing birds tweet or taxis honk, I’d still have chosen taxis. Manhattan is a surprisingly homey place, a conglomeration of small neighborhoods where every three blocks contains everything you need; groceries, produce, deli, baked goods, dry cleaners, hardware, pizza, and the “candy store” where after three years away they’ll ask you where you’ve been and cash your check. It was never the best place to visit, but it was a great place to live.

We made one attempt to return, a misadventure, and the years went by. We left the city, moved twice, watched our boys grow up, worked, played, became involved in the community and enjoyed our visits north, but we stopped thinking of moving. I had wonderful jobs as a Public Health Nurse for many years, during which time I became familiar with some of the oldest neighborhoods in Richmond. There are no “bad neighborhoods” in the City, because terrific people live in all of them. I was privileged to meet many and to help them age safely in their homes.

Many of these homes are gone now through decay, gentrification and monied interests. I wonder where our treasured elders are supposed to age with grace. Certainly not in the nursing homes we’ve failed to adequately regulate or properly fund. I think the pandemic has given us a bird’s eye view of the end product of our ageist society. Richmond can do better.

I’m lucky to be aging with my husband in a neighborhood we love, where we know all our neighbors. We look out for each other here in good times or bad. We love being able to walk out and see our gardens, fill the bird feeders, walk in the woods where we’ve discovered a patch of rare wild orchids. But the lack of transportation, lighted sidewalks, easy to reach grocery stores and services informs us that we will need to move and Richmond City is increasingly expensive. We don’t want to live in a complex segregated from other age groups and without children playing. These are some obstacles to aging well in the city we’ve grown to call home. When did that happen?

Do we have the bandwidth to change this landscape? I hope so.

Catherine MacDonald is the director of the Longevity Project for a greater Richmond. To submit a letter, email her at macdonaldcs@vcu.edu.

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