The Stories of Elders are a Holiday Gift
As 2018 ends and we reflect on what we want in the New Year, let us bless the elders who remain among us. I have the honor of
having a career that intersected with two vulnerable populations; first I worked with African American children and now I work with
African American elders. A general definition of vulnerable populations are racial or ethnic people, especially children, elderly, socio-
economically disadvantaged, underinsured or those with certain medical conditions.
When I was younger, I laid the foundation for the Academic Center for Excellence under the Nehemiah Corporation, went on to work for
children with incarcerated parents at Madison-area Urban Ministry and I continue to work creatively with all ages of youth in poetry and
other kinds of writing, as well as their history and culture. I first worked with African American elders in the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project,
which uses poetry to ignite memory, before I began working with African American elders and memory lost.
I experience great joy in working with these mature adults who are accomplished, wise and wonderful. They need our kind attention
and our careful assistance in ways that make them know they are loved and respected. I want to design programs that will help these
seniors, just like I once designed programs to help young people. For both populations, not being listened to and being overlooked by
other adults in their lives, are major problems.
In the United States in 2014, there were four million African Americans aged 65 and older, making up 9 percent of the older population, while this population is expected to triple to 12
million, comprising 12 percent of the older population by 2060. African American elders are not an enormously large group due to unfair health disparities that cause them to die at an
earlier age than other racial populations. The National Center on Elder Abuse cited financial exploitation and physical aggression as the two leading causes of elder abuse in African
American communities. The financial exploitation is by both family members and the general public, while the
physical aggression comes from adult children and extended family members, not husbands or wives. There is an
African American expression, “The only way to keep from getting older, is to die young.” Sixty-five must not be
considered either a death sentence or an indicator that your voice is silenced and you are no longer important in
your family, community or work place.
Setttlin’ Stories of Madison’s Early African American Families by Muriel Sims takes the inspiring stories of some of
early African American pioneers in Madison, juxtaposed with African American history in this city and allows us to
read, in their own words, all about their victories over racial prejudice, poverty and other barriers. These African
American elders were business people, government, white and blue collar workers, dreamers, artists, farmers and
folks who were determined to make strides for justice, equality and fair wages in this difficult Midwestern city. We
personally and collectively owe them honor in their later years and the peace of being loved and well cared for.
This book can serve as a model for collecting the personal stories of the elders in your family. I have discovered
that African American elders seldom think that their hard work is appreciated or that the stories of their
accomplishments are valuable to family members. While families gather for the holidays, record and videotape
their stories to bless the elders so that they will hear, see and believe our thanks, as well as to teach our young to
respect them too as important to our collective well being. Their stories are a legacy and anchor that we all need.