Don’t forget to support Black elders at this critical time in American history

“What the elders see while sitting, the young ones standing on their toes won’t see.” – African proverb

For the past three months, Americans from all backgrounds and of all ages have dealt with COVID-19, and its dramatic alteration of everyday life. The disease, combined with the structural racism playing over and over on screens – both large and small – is retraumatizing Black American elders who fought for justice during the Civil Rights movement.

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on older adults since they are more likely to die from the virus, and also have had to deal with limits on things they normally rely on like congregate meals and visits from family and friends to long-term care facilities. In addition, African-Americans of all ages have higher hospitalization and mortality rates from the virus. Black elders, have felt the brunt of both of those factors, and certainly feel the effects of the pandemic on their physical and mental health.

African-Americans of all ages have higher hospitalization and mortality rates from the virus.

The nation has also been wrestling with news about racial injustice and structural racism, due to the high-profile deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. To some Americans, these conversations about race in America may be new, or at the very least, recent. But Americans must remember that for Black elders, the fight for equality and justice, is not new.

Today, there are approximately 4.4 million Black seniors between the ages of 65 and 84, according to census estimates. Additionally, there are about 500,000 Black seniors over the age of 85. Many of these elders experienced the days of segregation and racial inequality firsthand and fought for justice in the civil rights movement. During that time, protestors were subjected to fire hoses, police dogs, harassment, and other traumas. They remember the pain, fear, and shock associated with those times, including the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The fear is real for these elders, as they lived through it,” explained Marsha Blanks, Director of Behavioral Health programs for Life Solutions South, LLC, a mental health and substance abuse organization. “Our elder clients remember the 60s very vividly. They saw and felt the tear gas.”

There are approximately 4.4 million Black seniors between the ages of 65 and 84, according to census estimates.

Blanks explained that watching the videos of those who violently lost their lives, as well as seeing images of negative law enforcement interactions with protesters, is sure to bring back memories that Black elders experienced as they grew up. “They are being retraumatized, and many are saying that they experienced depression and anxiety as they saw Mr. Floyd actually die, reminding them of lynchings that had occurred years ago.” Blanks added that this can lead to paralyzing fear, with Black elders expressing high levels of anxiety or depression, due to fear for their children and their grandchildren. Blanks explained, “the civil rights movement was driven by a lot of young people. The movement of today is also driven by young people. Black elders are inside due to the coronavirus, so they are watching the news all day. We have had to advise clients to stop watching, due to it becoming too stressful and it begins to affect their mental health.”

The City of Cleveland Department of Aging, Cuyahoga County Department of Senior and Adult Services, and the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging have all taken steps to reach out to older adults locally, connect with them, and provide points of assurance and support. This is good, Blanks added, but this underscores how important it is for all organizations, public, non-profit, and private to have mental health resources available to support these Black elders, as they are vitally important to our community. This is especially true for seniors who have severe mental health histories already, which makes it imperative to reach out and ensure they have emotional and physical support.

Witnessing the recent demonstrations by young activists has brought forward memories of past injustices that were never acknowledged or accounted for.

Dr. Victoria Winbush, Cleveland State University Assistant College Lecturer, School of Social Work, said that Black elders may also feel discouraged due to “informed skepticism.” She explained that “many Black elders have lived through times of similar social unrest as a result of racism. Witnessing the recent demonstrations by young activists has brought forward memories of past injustices that were never acknowledged or accounted for. They may also have brought forth concern for younger generations who have high hopes that the protests will result in substantive social change. Black elders are hopeful that real change will happen and that young idealism will not be disappointed. However, in many ways for Black elders it feels like deja vu and the outcome could too easily devolve into a repeat of the past…nothing changes.”

Dr. Edward McKinney, a professor emeritus of social work at Cleveland State University and author of the book Black Aged: Understanding Diversity and Service Needs, expressed concern about seniors who are facing loneliness or are in long-term care facilities, who do not have social connections and support systems with friends and family. “It is difficult to see and hear what is going on. But it is also frightening because it feels like nobody cares. People pay less time and attention to look after us. They don’t make the connection between the feeling of being left alone, to mental health issues. Black depression is real. Family members may not even understand what their older parents or grandparents may be going through. Even adults may not understand the urgent need for elders to get professional help.”

Black depression is real.

McKinney added “Back in the day, churches and community organizations used to have benevolent societies that could provide ongoing support to older adults. We don’t have those organizations anymore.”

How can families and advocates pay attention and support Black older adults? “If you ask elders, they will tell you how they are feeling,” McKinney said. “We need to be more serious and pay attention to help them to overcome some of those feelings. We must also be mindful that sometimes elders may not want to talk about their experiences. It is just important for you to be there.”

Ensuring that programs and services are available is important McKinney said, but it is also important to overcome stigma. “Yes, the elder population is growing, and people are living longer. But we must do more to acknowledge our need for help for our mental health. A lot of people do not want to talk about mental health, saying ‘God will take care of it.’ Sometimes, you need to put professional help with your faith. You can pray and hope, but sometimes you need more than that, and that includes professional help. We have to figure out a way to maneuver the language to make it acceptable to get help. We must invest in the programs and services, but we must also overcome stigma.”

Sometimes, you need to put professional help with your faith.

Yet, even with the challenges that Black elders face, Winbush says that Black elders also possess perseverance. She adds that “more than anything, Black elders have demonstrated their enduring capacity to persevere and to face the “deck they have been dealt.” Whether it’s learning to “go to the doctor” via computer, or remembering to wear a face mask when going out, or maintaining social contact by telephone or Zoom when the strong preference is for face to face interaction. It is this quality of daily demonstrated strength which has so endeared Black elders to their family and friends and made them role models for the generations to follow.”

As advocates, we must remember the experiences of Black elders in our community, and find ways to continue to provide support and uplift them during this defining moment in American history.