New Elder Incomers

Artist Trudi Heeb captures the essence of waiting in this montage.

Old age waiting. Montage by Trudy Heeb

As the news unfolds day by day about migrations from Syria and Iraq into Europe, I feel as if I am seeing our world a hundred years ago. The idea of the “huddled masses” arriving at Ellis Island is brought home in the tired and sometimes angry faces pausing at the TV cameras.

One distinctive characteristic is that the adults are educated. Some are qualified professionals seeking better opportunities and freedom. That was perhaps exceptional in the 19th Century, especially among the families leaving impoverished farms, but we remember that the United States benefitted from the importation of many great minds in the 20th, notably from Germany. Political and religious persecution has continuously driven the intellectual elite to our shores.

What I think is particularly tragic now is the uprooting of the grandparents who see their families greeted by quickly erected lethal fences and steel batons. Of course adult children today do not want to leave their elders behind. It goes against the grain, and is impractical if the grandparents are providing childcare or domestic help. Neglecting elders is illegal in some societies. But what do these migrants think they can offer them under these conditions?

And what do the elders think? Do they really want to start life over again in their seventies and eighties? It’s not as if they are moving from New York to Florida like my fictional Sophie and her friends, or to California, Nevada, Texas and Arizona as “active retirees” looking forward to snow-free winters. If they are lucky, they will be sitting silent and bewildered in the corners of apartments, perhaps in kitchens just like our great-great-grandparents did back in the 1870s and 1930s, wearing their old-fashioned clothes, wondering if the children they brought into the world are going to make it through the economic storms. They can’t go out on their own as they won’t recognize the neighborhoods, the patterns of daily life, or even the language.

Urban Development in London

Urban Development in London

It is easy to understand why incomers colonize, living cheek to jowl with their countrymen and countrywomen, in strange urban settings. The rapid influx may be frightening to the natives, but unless the natives offer to bring the new arrivals into the fold, teach them the local ways, these immigrants are going to build their own communities within the larger ones, making them larger and stronger, and safe for asserting their cultural identities.

Seaside houses at Chichester

Seaside houses at Chichester

Perhaps this is not unlike Florida in earlier decades, and perhaps not unlike Britain, where three times as many retirees will live in rural villages seacoast towns as in the cities. But there is one difference. The new immigrants with grandparents in tow are flocking to large cities where there are jobs, while American and English elders have been resettling in pastoral areas where it is peaceful. There may not be sufficient services in these rural places to accommodate their needs, but our secure elders will survive as long as they drive cars. The immigrant elders have no choice. They are set down in strange and complicated environments as helpless as babes.


For more on this subject see

On England’s elder resettlement see


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