Folded hands of an elderly black man
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Try as I may, I am not always successful at blocking out TV commercials. One day, while I was studying communications theories in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, the TV droning in the background, I heard a voice invite 50-year-olds to join the American Associations for Retired Persons, more commonly known as AARP.

“That’s me!” I thought. 

Actually, that was me four years ago. Where did the time go?

In prison, the routines and environment are static. The days blur into one another until they become years, then decades. 

I entered prison as a naive, ignorant youth offender, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. That was 30 years ago.

But that AARP commercial marked time in a new way. On the one hand, I assumed my eligibility for AARP was a good thing. As an incarcerated person, I’ve grown quite accustomed to being degraded, maligned and categorized as worthless. Perhaps my age would now afford me more respect.

On the other hand, the commercial was a stark reminder of all the identities ascribed to me: African-American, institutionalized and now elderly. It dawned on me that, statistically, each of these converging demographics increases my risk of a litany of health conditions, including hypertension, chronic environmental stress and lowered immune efficiency. 

This risk further increased in the context of COVID-19.

On March 24, 2020, not long after I heard that commercial, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that seniors sacrifice their lives so that the U.S could open up the economy. I was repelled by his comments because the group he was targeting included me, my mom, my beloved aunts and uncles and many treasured friends and professors — a sizable segment of the population. Have we, as a culture, devolved to the point where Patrick’s ideas are actually tolerated? How did we get here? 

Apparently, Patrick’s ageist sentiments reflected broader social attitudes. According to  University of San Diego geriatric psychologist Dilip Jeste, COVID-19 sparked a growing stigma against elders. For example, in April 2020, a woman protesting the shelter-in-place order in her state held a placard that read: “Sacrifice the weak, re-open Tennessee.” 

As a practicing social scientist, I would add that this attitude, this twisted group-think, is rooted in a serious collective lack of empathy.

My own lack of empathy for others paved my path to prison three decades ago. I see this character defect in the treatment of the elderly in the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet I refuse to believe that apathy is all we as Americans can muster.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Delbert Williams

Delbert Williams is a writer, who holds a B.A. in communication studies from California State University, Los Angeles. He cares about empathy and healing to solve America's many divisions, hate and injury. He is incarcerated in California. Delbert Williams is a pen name.