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Addressing Ageism: A Week in the Life of the Human Rights Commission


Rain has washed away a snowdrift in the corner of the 24hr Dunkin' Donuts parking lot in Somerville’s Magoun square revealing a fallen sign promoting a Walk to End Alzheimer’s event last October. In this out of date sign I stop and reflect with gratitude for the event organizers and those dedicated participants. That month I spent largely oblivious to the elderly in my midst, preoccupied with our newborn and launching the kids to school routines and planning to make my sweet potato chili for Halloween, not to mention the opening stages of what International Court of Justice has ruled applying the law of Genocide to call for an end to hostilities and delivery of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Though they remain largely invisible in one of the Commonwealth’s youngest cities, the elderly, classed in our society among the most vulnerable persons, and their needs, have lately come to my attention in my capacity as Chair of the Somerville Human Rights Commission.

For over a decade the Commission’s “baby” has been summoning City leaders to plan the annual observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. With the creation of a Racial and Social Justice Department, the Commission was afforded new flexibility to broaden our efforts at promoting Human Rights. A successful recruitment campaign is bringing aboard two prospective commissioners with an interest in the elderly population. Both of these individuals live in Municipal public housing and have direct proximity with elderly neighbors. Martin has just enrolled in law school after a decade of working within the District Attorney’s Office on matters of advocacy for elderly. Elyse is fulfilling a desire to make herself useful to her community volunteering with our Commission and Somerville Cambridge Elderly Services, and, after extended struggle with mental illness, wants to confront ageism. How can I support her in assuming her responsibilities?

I brought my infant daughter to the grounds of the old West Somerville High School now home on Monday mornings to the Council for Aging’s “Coffee and Conversation.” Attending the program, ten men and women sat on folding chairs. Carmela rose to examine my daughter, asleep in the stroller, and Maureen, the program director introduced herself with a look of state your business. I took the empty seat beside Carmela’s chair and after describing the intention of my colleague, lobbed out for conversation, “What do we think about Reverse Mortgages?” Janet laughed.

Changing the subject to help needed for shoveling snow, Lily, of Asian descent, spoke of the person who came to her door and offered to shovel her street corner for $100. She counter-offered $70, and he agreed to the job. Janet, Caucasian, who also lives on a corner, had paid $150 for her guy who she appreciated for his dependability and responsiveness on demand. Carmela couldn’t understand why Janet didn’t have her daughter shovel. “But she works,” Janet said. Tom had paid $40 to a youth contact arranged through Somerville's teen-service match program. Such a program was presumably designed in the wake of the 2000 census which found 32% of Somerville residents had a disability (25,059 persons) and of this population 29% were 65 years or older, and 32% lived below the poverty level. (Somerville Open Space and Recreation Plan of 2008)

Seated beside Lily, Ruby, possibly a Haitian refugee, said nothing about hiring help, though the comparison of hourly wage might have prompted her when she spoke about the $10 wage she received as a care giver assistant. How was she financially prepared for her later years? Lily, representing the ten percent of Somerville residents of Asian descent, faced an increased likelihood of harassment compared to her white peers. Afterward, I sent a Chinese New Year event flyer to Maureen from a colleague who has organized the Somerville Asian Family Network in response to the rise of hate incidents targeting AAPI persons. Perhaps Lily would benefit.

Somerville population by age group

Two days later at our monthly webinar I made the case for a human rights framework to guide our approach to addressing the advocacy needs of elderly in our community. I highlighted the parole bill for the elderly currently in the legislature. Next I showed UDHR #2 freedom from discrimination, linking to our library for Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, suggesting whether Elyse might convene a reading group. I backed up a proposal of timing pointing to the International Day for Older Persons, Oct. 6, referencing the UN’s stand against Ageism last year. I identified potential partners, the contacts for Somerville Media, Mass Senior Action and Somerville Council for Aging, suggesting Elyse might recruit for a panel discussion to be hosted as a panel for the Somerville Access TV. In addition to UDHR #5 Freedom from degrading treatment, recommendation 27 from the 2022 Report of the Inter-America Commission of Human Rights addresses the intersection of Protecting Against Violence and Elderly population. To this end, I provided the contact for Respond Inc., our local partnering shelter organization for Survivors of Domestic Violence and how we might contribute to the Women’s Commission’s annual Domestic Violence Awareness event in October.

Two potential human rights lines of inquiry surfaced from Alex Bob’s 2019 dissertation for Masters in Urban Planning at MIT. His method of qualitative research incorporated interviews with Somerville residents such as Norbert DeAmato who expressed that only a limited number of restaurants served elderly. Drawing on Graham Rowles theory of “insideness” and/or belonging to place, “feeling excluded from a broad range of the businesses undoubtedly diminished his feelings of physical insideness,” Bob wrote. I imagined a future Human Rights pamphlet highlighting “Somerville Insiders,” but what was the substantive advocacy aim? Bob’s study of older adult homeowners and gentrification found that despite the existence of a property tax deferral program for seniors, which allows eligible seniors to defer up to 100% of their property taxes and only pay them off when they sell or pass away, low enrollment exists “statewide due to lack of publicity and homeowners concerns of burdening heirs.”

The beleaguered sign promoting a Run for Alzheimer’s Awareness month in October offers a casual observer a moment of insight. Even an opportunity. Aging in a city known for its super abundance of 25-29 year olds comes with disadvantages for those whose sense of “insideness” is slipping away. 

The contrast was stunning. Rabbi Phil of B'nai Brith stood near six officers surrounded by dozens of 25-29 year-olds last night attending City Council, gathered overflow as the Council deliberated and eventually passed 9-2 a Ceasefire resolution, checking in on the temperature of well-being and making eye-contact. One young man offered a caramel iced granola bar for me to offer others, which I brought to the Rabbi.

Outside, former Somerville Rep. Denise Provost had stopped to talk after attending testimony and spoke to me about her concern for the women in tents despairing over the fate of their children. She spoke of a mournful dream in which she gave a final parting to a friend, an Armenian poet, mentioning in aside that Israel does not recognize the Armenian genocide. She spoke of the Holocaust survivor and expert in trauma who last October was an early voice decrying the wanton indiscriminate bombing from a trauma perspective. And she spoke of the major blowback across the country led by AIPAC and locally when two decades ago a contentious Somerville resolution caused divisions in the City. And she noted the overwhelming concentration of youth--what training would they need--and did they understand politics is about the "long game"? One week of careful consideration has caused me to re-think next October. One thing for sure, it no longer just about celebrating Halloween with my daughters.


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