Reflecting on our humanity

Hunkered down in my office, I looked up to find an old friend, recently retired, at my door once again. I was still three years from my own retirement, but I felt it, like an unwanted shadow. “What are you up to,” I asked. “Learning how to sleep again,” he said, “and reclaiming my own rhythm from the college.” Suddenly, my shadow was full blown. Mind churning; who would I be when I walked out of this office? 

Today, I am President Emeritus, certainly an honor, but also a pretty word for retired. Merriam-Webster is blunt: emeritus as the opposite of active. What I feared years ago was the loss of meaning. Without meaning, we feel useless. This is so because we’re human. Living out loud, on this wondrous planet, comes with the fragility and vulnerability that is also very human.

Who has not felt fragile and vulnerable in this extraordinary pandemic year? COVID-19 has shaken millions of us loose from jobs, social connections, and the people we love. The people who help us feel a little more human. But none have suffered the virus more than our country’s senior citizens. Locked down in congregate living facilities, the elderly were easy prey for a cruel contagion. For many, bucket lists sat frustrated, time slipping away. Sixty million of us past 55, still needing to feel useful and engaged. 

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Engaging seniors implies meeting basic needs, including food security, economic stability, medical care, pharmaceuticals, and technology access. Thousands of senior organizations are currently reaching out via deliveries and electronic means to keep seniors connected during yet another COVID-19 peak. Economic stimulus, long overdue, must ensure these organizations are equipped to provide necessary resources.

I spent a career advocating for college access and affordability, with particular attention to underserved populations. Students who were often the first in their families to attend college blossomed and moved on to successful careers. America’s seniors need the same opportunity to explore new horizons. Our bodies may age, but the thirst to be fulfilled, to apply the wisdom life has bestowed, remains as fresh as ever. 

President-elect Joe Biden has outlined an ambitious, holistic agenda for caregiving. His plan seeks to remedy the fragmented approach that has often hobbled the country’s efforts. Addressing older and disabled adults, preschool for toddlers and better jobs for home care workers, the plan proposes to invest $775 billion over a ten-year period. It offers support to caregivers employed in the field as well as family caregivers, many of whom find themselves serving 24/7 for both elders and children. Home healthcare agencies have lost upwards of 70% of nursing aides in some locales due to illness or caution. 

Beyond caregiving, such a plan should support community involvement and learning opportunities. High schools and higher education, particularly community colleges with extensive continuing education curriculum, should become havens for seniors in search of enrichment and opportunities to contribute. Free tuition should cover the entire age spectrum. 

“May you live in interesting times,” is said to be an ancient curse. The pandemic has been more than interesting. Tiny droplets raining everywhere on planet Earth. But everywhere meant we were offered an unprecedented opportunity to coalesce, a public health crisis that would surely move us beyond partisan mindset. So far, we appear to have failed miserably. How could it have been otherwise? We listen, not with our clarity and consideration, but through a haze of bias. Tribes hooked on difference and disparity, our commonality a mystery.

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But despite all appearances, we cannot undo the fact of our humanity. We are never that far away from what we can be. We have come this far because we have always been attuned to self-discovery. If we learned to cover our ears, we can unlearn. If we cling to parochial beliefs, we have the courage to listen anew. If we are fragile, so too are we profoundly strong. Each of us, profoundly strong. Beset by challenges, we always get to choose our response. We can chafe and bemoan what has been taken away, or we can recognize what remains. Freed from the momentum, might we slow down and breathe just a little easier? Might it make all the difference?  

Seeds in the desert, a wise man once said, wait for the rain, patient and ready. They know the rain will come. And when it does, they will transform the desert with brilliant color. 

 

Padrón is the President Emeritus at Miami Dade College. In 2016, Padrón received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.