A place at the table for old age

IN THE former Gold Rush town of Oroville in Northern California a week ago today, a 92-year-old man leapt from the green steel of Table Mountain Bridge into the deep green water of Feather River. Coval Russell died instantly landing on rocks. He ended his life on a brilliantly sunny morning for one main reason - he was kicked out of

The incandescent beauty of the scene before him could not make up for the fact that it was not Butte County Jail where Russell spent one of the happiest years of his life. ''Pops'', as the other inmates called him, was sentenced early last year for stabbing his 70-year-old landlord with a pocketknife. Once he got used to his surroundings, razor wire and
clanging doors, Russell found some things he did not have outside.

Butte County Sheriff Scott McKenzie told the local paper he was ”in a place where he would have people listen to him, talk to him, and share some camaraderie”. Though physically infirm, his mind was ”sharp as a tack” and he was a likeable old man who became a grandfather figure to the younger inmates. His instructions to attorney Gradey Davies were unusual. ”Really his objective was to keep him in jail for as long as I
could.” But after 426 days, Russell was shown the door.

As he had $20,000 in his bank account and no history of mental illness, the state
had nothing more to do with him. He moved to a motel and phoned a reporter to talk about killing himself. A few days later he did just that. It is a tragic tale, revealing the utter depths of loneliness that some old people fall into. Lifelong bachelor Russell had found a
home in the jail and was heartbroken to leave it again. This is a culture which worships youth and has little time for the wisdom that age was once supposed to bring with it.

George Bush the Younger, usually clad in jeans and trainers, and a fitness fanatic who can run a mile in seven minutes, although in his mid-fifties, is a role model for the
21st-century oldie. In the US this kind of older person is increasingly visible and increasingly valued. Age discrimination legislation means employers can’t fire ageing staff to take on younger people.

They can’t be discriminated against in terms of job applications, either. If the US has a public face, it has a well-coifed blue rinse and pearly dentures. At tourist information offices across the country, one encounters staff into their seventies. In national parks, rangers, information and campsite workers, shop assistants, and waitresses are almost all more than 65.

Most have retired from first careers and many travel during the summer in big camper vans equipped with TV, fridge, cookers, and air conditioning. They work part-time for parking places with electricity and water and pocket money. There is the occasional Victor
Meldrew-type, but most are fabulously courteous and helpful. It may take them just a little longer to serve each customer, some older workers need a high stool behind the counter, but that is more than made up for by their people skills. In the Jedediah Smith campground in Redwood National Park, the sound of the pipes is heard twice a day when Ranger
Doug Gordon is on duty.

Nearing 70, Gordon, a retired schoolteacher whose father emigrated from Dundee, has several second-generation pupils among his junior rangers. The children respond wonderfully to him as he orders them to ”go hug a Douglas Fir” and ”go hug a Redwood”. Full of stories, jokes, and accumulated lore, surrounded by youngsters who have memorised not just the names and uses of the plants, but also the punchlines to his shaggy dog stories, he is a great example of the benefits involving older people can bring.

Having worked among the primeval Californian Redwoods for four decades, his stories from the past include how he found one of the tallest trees in the world measuring 379ft, but his boss refused to accept the measurement. Years later when the tree fell down, and Gordon was proved right, the boss explained he had not wanted to know fearing he might have to build a new road, car park, and toilet to accommodate extra visitors. He also
tells of the scientist who got government permission to fell a Redwood to discover how old they might be. He chose one, chopped it down, and found that at more than 5000 years old, he had killed the oldest tree ever found in the US.

When at his evening lecture the slide projector broke down, Gordon was at ease. Singing songs, playing the pipes, teasing the children, and telling from memory the lurid life story of explorer Jedediah Smith, Gordon proved that for people like him there is and should be a place at the table in the US. As a society, this country is way beyond where we are in the UK in terms of offering opportunities to older people to involve themselves in new careers. In a workaholic society with an ageing population, that is perhaps hardly surprising.

But as the sad tale of Coval Russell shows at a stage beyond that it is all too easy to slip through the gaps in the net. When people become too old and infirm to work, there is no longer the kind of community outside the workplace that can support them. The rocking chair, the place by the fire, the chance to sit still and yet still to be made much of, that
kind of old age is gone forever if it ever existed.

The Scottish Herald
July 17th 2002