Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Great Babysitter

However did civilized man survive without television? It is so ubiquitous, we tend to forget and ignore the way it has sneaked into every aspect of our lives. From the newlyweds who install the tv in their bedroom so they can fall asleep to 24, to the harried mother who plops her kid in front of the Teletubbies so she can get something done, to the middle-aged couple who spend their evenings in silence in front of the tube, tv is our best, most reliable friend. From cradle to grave, there it is.

As part of my job, I call to interview all our new customers, many of whom are low-income--underemployed, retired, disabled. Today I reached an elderly woman who still works part-time at a fast-food restaurant. As I went through my list of questions, I could hear the television on in the background. I immediately drew a picture in my mind of her living room: small, dark-panelled, overheated, with a love seat and recliner, probably a hand-knit throw somewhere in there, and maybe a small pile of magazines.

After I hung up, I thought, "Well, at least she didn't have the volume up so loud she couldn't hear me." That happens a lot during these calls. And then it struck me--so many of these elderly or disabled people have the tv on when I call. What would they do without it? If they're stuck in their home, unable to drive, are there many other options for diversion?

As a college student, I once spent a drizzly afternoon doing Meals on Wheels deliveries with my grandparents' neighbor. What a wonderful program that is, and I could certainly tell several of these housebound people were delighted to see a young face. The neighbor had to practically peel a couple of them off of me, and I was sorry to leave them in their loneliness. I can imagine that having a tv to add some life to a small, lonely apartment must be a necessity. But again...what would these elderly people have been doing in the days before tv?

My father remembers pre-tv life; he has described to us the day the first tv showed up in his Queens neighborhood. I know that one of his grandmothers lived with them for some time after she was widowed. I suppose that, "back in the day," the elderly would most likely have gone to stay with their own families. Or, if there was no family, perhaps they ended up in a retirement home. (I'm sure I'd much prefer the former over the latter!) Today, though, we all need to figure out for ourselves what we're going to do when the house gets too big, and we need some help getting dinner. Moving in with the kids is rarely an option.

I would not be the first to bewail this crumbling of the family dynamic; the loss of respect and support for our elders; the absence of their wisdom and love from their own grandchildren. We all know about this. And yet, both our children and our grandparents end up being babysat by the tv.

What is it about our society that prevents us from getting these two groups together? Is is laziness? Complacency? Inability to get over the generational gap that makes our parents drive us crazy, and argue over what time Junior should go down for his nap? I can hear the eye roll in my own mother's voice when she describes the video games my nephews play, or the way my brother talks to his kids. Ah, the delicate balance of parent and child both learning to keep their mouths shut.

(Which, honestly, might be a great benefit to grandparents' spending more time with their kids' families. Don't you think, in this age of instant messaging, reality shows and comment forums on every dang thing, that the art of discretion could do well to be revived?)

However, I can't say that inter-generational conflict is the only reason we haven't changed the way we treat our elderly. There is a certain amount of selfishness, too. Adult children aren't going to hang around in Hometown, USA, just to keep an eye on Mom and Dad. For that matter, Mom and Dad aren't really interested in moving in with that rowdy younger bunch, either. We've all gotten used to having it our way, all the time. We modern Americans don't adapt well to lifestyle infringement--witness all the whining about high gas prices last summer.

I suppose, in the end, it's up to each family to negotiate its own path, but society has made it too normal for these families to be splintered off across the country. Would it be callous to lay some of the blame at the feet of the elderly themselves? After all, weren't they the ones who instilled whatever values exist in their own children? On the other hand, looking at my brother's and my vastly different relationships with my parents, nothing is predictable when it comes to raising children.

Hmm. This post started out being about how we use the tv to babysit folks we don't have time to take care of, and ended up being an examination of the status of the elderly in our society. And I don't have a whole lot of answers to any of the questions I've raised. All I know is that when the day comes that my mother or father is tragically single, they are welcome to our little ol' guest room. It's not much, but all anyone can offer is what they've got. And I think my parents would be happy to have it.

Plus, y'know, there's an extra tv in the shed, if needed...


  1. Another fascinating post, as usual. I, myself, don't watch much television, so I can only add this...


  2. How bad is it that I am making my wife sit in on a Friday night so I can find out who the 5th Cylon is?

  3. How bad is that I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about?


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