I also have grown children and grandchildren, living in other parts of the country. I recently moved to a new state, downsized in a BIG way, and settled myself in a one-bedroom apartment. I love it! I’ve made many new friends, am very active in my Unitarian church, in addition to being the Office Administrator there on a part-time basis. My children are supportive and we stay in touch by email and phone. When I do have a quiet moment at home I relish the time—reading or cooking or watching Netflix.
My advise to seniors: Make the most out of each day. Get involved. Find friends of your age. It's a wonderful life.
This gal would agree:
I’m 79 pushing 80. I have lived alone for over 30 years, but I have never been lonely, bored or depressed about it.
I have some health problems, BUT I’m very active. I’ve been a Master Gardener for 15 years, helping people to save money, eat better, and learn to grow and save their food by canning, freezing, dehydrating. I also oversee 300 volunteers in three counties to be Citizen Scientists, monitoring rain gauges for CoCoRaHS.org. I’m in my eleventh year doing this.
I also am computer literate. Anyone can become literate on computers at most libraries, college classes—many are free for people over 65 years of age. Other people are active in their church activities, listening to children read at your local schools, help out at animal shelters. Volunteer at art galleries, museums, etc.
I had three children; they are all old now. Only one son is in my life. That is alright, as we do NOT OWN our children just because we happened to bear them. Mine are all good citizens and not a drain on anyone, so I feel I must have done something right. I do not owe them and they do not owe me.
This woman is frustrated by older people who wait for their children to cheer them up:
I’m 68, a widow (for 18 years), childless, and an only child. Lonely? Yeah. I don’t even have any family to complain about. Why don’t people with non-communicative children call THEM, write to THEM, reach out to THEM. Good grief, people! I don’t have that option. Wish I did.
Here’s a reader who’s not old yet:
Thank you for addressing the topic of aging and living alone. My partner and I, now in our 40s, are child-free by choice. I have always known I didn’t want children, and we have both been asked many times who will take care of us when we’re old. The answer is that it requires a lot of planning and saving—something that it seems as if some of your letter-writers have not done because they were relying on their children.
I think it would behoove everyone to plan for old age as we do, by making sure there are caretakers, decision-makers, and others in place when the time comes, and building a network of peers with common interests to keep us company. Relying on your children for both support and companionship is often a losing strategy, and it damages relationships with them by breeding resentment.
Nobody seems to care that I live alone in my 70s. My two adult children and four adult grandchildren are busy living their lives. It’s hard to put into words the feelings of loneliness that overcome me.
I give many gifts to my children. Yes, I’m invited to birthday parties and graduations—any celebration requiring a gift—and now I am broke, living off Social Security, fearful I’ll soon be homeless. I’m lonely and in fear of my immediate future.
I have no social contact with others my age. Guess I’m an introvert, lonely and wanting a friend.
Here’s another reader, Brenda:
I’m alone in Texas. My four children are out living their lives. If I died, they would find out two weeks later. My oldest daughter might care. My second daughter wouldn’t care. My son might be slightly shocked, but he would get over it quickly.
My youngest is the only one who shows much care. She calls me every Sunday. She is all I have, so I will love and cherish her from 2,000 miles away.
In an earlier note about a short documentary, The Forgotten Ones, featuring an 80-year-old woman living by herself in Chinatown, I asked readers what it’s like to grow old without any family at home. If you’re anything like Maude, it means fun, independence, and a daily sense of discovery (not to mention sex with someone in his early 20s):
A reader remembers his self-reliant grandmother:
She spent all of her life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, living in an apartment like your video’s por-por [a Chinese term for “grandmother”], but her place was smaller and up two flights of stairs. (I never visited Manhattan’s Chinatown, but the feel and vibe seems not too unlike SF.) My grandma was also by herself, after my grandpa passed away in the ‘90s. She chose to live in Chinatown because it was a familiar place and everything she needed was there. She refused to move in with us, away from Chinatown.
Many older people in that neighborhood also do not want to rely on their children. They don’t want to accept that they need to be cared for in their old age. They are sentimental about Chinatown and want access to all of the things they’ve been used to.
My grandma’s friends were her neighbors, as there was a community kitchen and bathrooms with showers that were publicly shared. Each week we would visit her at the apartment, as it was a drop-off point between shopping trips. Her birthdays were the time our families gathered. As a teenager I would still make a trip to see her, but in my 20s those trips lessened.
While my grandma did not do what the por-por in the video did [go through garbage bags on the sidewalk for discarded baked goods], she would sometimes ask shopkeepers for food that cannot be sold anymore—which they would’ve disposed of anyway—and make something out of it. We insisted that she should treat herself by buying things fresh, but she stubbornly argued that they are still good. I thought in her mind she had won something for not having spent a penny.
One of the most popular videos we featured this summer was a 10-minute documentary by Mantai Chow profiling an 80-year-old woman named King-Sim Ng. Ng’s husband died in 1985 and she has been living alone in Manhattan’s Chinatown for 15 years. Here’s a snapshot of her life, as seen by Mantai:
“This is just so sad and disturbing,” says reader JT. Another one, Ben, also got emotional over Ng’s story:
I think a lot of people can relate to the woman in the video, especially people coming from immigrant families. I almost cried watching this video because Ng, like my mother, also worked in the garment industry and her husband, my father, had also passed away. My mother is in a different living situation, but I can imagine the hardship this woman must have gone through as an immigrant and now alone living in Chinatown.
Do you live alone in your old age and want to share your feelings about it—positive, negative, or somewhere in between? Do you enjoy your independence or wish you still lived with loved ones? Please send us a note at email@example.com.
At the end of Mantai’s film, Ng disappears after being hit by a car, leaving the audience in angst. One reader pleaded in the comments section, “Do you have an update on her?? I would like to know whether she lived or not.” Mantai replied:
I got in touch with Ng finally in June after the film is done. She is back in her apartment safe and sound. She seems to be fine but her legs are still a bit weak. [Her friend] Tay visits Ng in her apartment almost every day now to give her food and stuff. Her children also are helping out! I hope things will get better for her.
A few days ago, after I got a hold of Mantai, he went to see Ng at her apartment and filmed a short update for her fans:
Such a sweet lady! Thanks to Mantai for the followup and happy ending.
Back when the documentary first aired, one reader created a commenting account (ChinatownGirl) just to share this remarkable coincidence:
I came across on the street the lady who “disappeared” in the video moments after she was hit by the car. So here’s what really happened:
On a drizzly night, Feb 4 around 10pm, I was walking down Mulberry St. to the subway. I saw a little old lady on the curb, next to her shopping cart. There was a big Italian guy on the phone with 911/ambulance dispatch. Apparently he had swiped her with his car and she had fallen.
Three Chinatown punks (I use that term 100% affectionately) were taking a smoke break outside a bar. One of the punks ran inside and came back out with an umbrella to shield the old lady from the rain. I went over and put my backpack under her arm to keep it out of a puddle. The punks and I asked her in Chinese how she was doing and where it hurt. She said her hip was very painful.
The Italian guy was talking to the 911 operator: “You wanna know how old she is? Er…um, I guess I’d say she’s 50-something?” I turned to the old lady and asked her how old she was in Canto. She said “I’m 80!” (White people REALLY can’t tell how old Asians are, I thought…)
While waiting for the ambulance, I asked her if there was anyone we should call? She dug into her many layers of coats/vests and pulled out the plastic ID pouch that all Chinatown grandmas have with their reduced-fare Metrocard. There was a worn piece of paper with her kids’ numbers on it. When the EMTs got there, I translated all the questions about meds and pain scale/locations. Then I called her son’s cellphone. He was in Queens. He was really concerned and thankful, and headed out immediately to meet her at NY Downtown hospital where she’d be taken.
Later that night, I got a text from him:
Hello Good Samaritan, Thank you very much for tending to my mother. I’m sure it was very reassuring for her to have you there. I am at hospital now but she’s getting x-rays, so I haven’t seen her yet. Thanks again & best regards
I sent a text back:
Sure, of course. A similar accident happened to my grandma at Chatham Sq a couple of months ago while she was crossing with her shopping cart too. I’m glad I was just passing by in time to help tonight! Hope she gets better soon. Good night,**--**
The next day, my uncles texted me, saying their old Chinatown friend told them I had helped his mom and helped him get to the hospital quickly. I asked my uncles how the stranger knew we were related? Because, they said, their friend only knew of one person named **--** in Chinatown!
Chinatown is not dead. It’s got to evolve, but it’s not dead. We are still here, our networks are centered here, and they run deep. I encourage more of us to re-engage and re-invent what we want Chinatown to be. What are the strands of the old Chinatown worth preserving? And how do we do that? I would like to hear your thoughts. [If you have any, please email firstname.lastname@example.org]
And for those who would ask, Why doesn’t the son have his mom live with him in Queens? Why don’t they live with her in Chinatown? Why would they let her pick trash in Chinatown streets and spend so many hours alone?
That gets back to the guilt/ambivalence over caring for our elders. Chinatown has been a community of working-class immigrants. We struggle to keep family connectedness across rifts caused by psychological economic trauma, relentless personalities that are required for survival, and the sometimes tragic success of working yourself out of poverty, only to transform your next generation into something that you are not. It’s a lot more complex than this video makes it out to be.
This video has gone viral among my Asian-American friends. I guess it speaks to a deep-seated guilt/ambivalence that many of us feel over caring for elderly parents and grandparents. Or a nostalgia for the Chinatown(s) of our childhoods that cannot exist anymore.
As someone who was born, raised, and is still working in Chinatown, I always appreciate a spotlight on the neighborhood, especially a narrative of relatively high production value like this one. However, I could not help but feel from the very beginning that this piece was somewhat sensationalistic. It leads you to believe, from the beginning, that this PoPo is eating out of the garbage, only to reveal moments later that she’s feeding birds.
The worst part is where it dramatically says, “she disappeared,” then reveals moments later that she was hit by a car. Then the video simply ends, mercilessly leaving the viewer hanging about the old lady’s well-being. A bit disingenuous when the filmmaker clearly knows what happened to her.
So now the comments section of TheAtlantic.com is filled with assumptions and condemnations for her “ungrateful” children who have supposedly “abandoned” her. The viewer is left with a sinking feeling that Chinatown is dead—just a husk of a once-thriving society, a place where a sweet old lady would be left alone to die anonymously in the street, a place that’s abandoned so hipsters should move in with their bars and galleries. No! I think this is actually a very dangerous narrative to broadcast, and somewhat irresponsible of the filmmaker!
Mantai replies to his critic:
Thanks for shedding light on what had happened that night. I am the producer and director of the film. I totally agree with you that Chinatown is not dead. The food sharing shown in the film is the proof. She helped her friend, meanwhile getting help from another friend. I think this is a beautiful picture. A lot of kindness and people take care of each other.
One thing I would like to clarify in response to your comment saying that “a bit disingenuous when the filmmaker clearly knows what happened to her.” I finished this film in March. The only thing I knew by then was she got hit by a car. I called and went to 20+ hospital but still couldn’t find her. I tried to reach out to her family members to no avail. At that point, I did not know her whereabouts and her conditions. Her friends and I only had her home phone number. All we could do was to wait until someone picked up the phone again. As a matter of fact, I [didn’t get] in touch with her until lately.
This 10-min documentary is just a glimpse into her life. I agree that it’s a lot more complex than that. This film is meant to stir up discussion and bring awareness to the society about the issues facing the elderly people in Chinatown, not to put blame on anyone.
This reader makes a great point in defense of Mantai:
It was apparently not intentional on the filmmaker’s part to leave out the information about her ultimate whereabouts and condition that elicited such strong to. However, it would be quite brilliant on his part to leave it out intentionally, because it would be consistent with the troubling feeling of loneliness and the disturbing sense of being practically invisible in a crowded city.
Otherwise, many viewers would not think much more about Ng or elderly people like her, much less take the time to write and criticize the filmmaker or express feelings of what psychology calls “disequilibrium,” which is required for learning, inquiry, action, etc. A neatly packaged video with a “happy ending” would be much easier to accept AND move right along to something else.
I speak as a second generation Asian American who—along with friends sharing similar backgrounds—has dealt with issues present in this thought-provoking film. When we pass by an elderly person (or people in similar conditions, such as the homeless or mentally ill), this film, and its unintended ending, reminds us to wonder about that person’s life challenges and actually do something that could help ease their burden, because it’s not just a movie; it’s real life.
One more reader for now:
As much as I appreciate this quick glimpse into Ng’s life, it begs a couple questions. The most glaring one has been asked by other readers: Where are her children, and are they aware of her dire straits? Secondly, is Ng aware of and able to access local charities and agencies that can assist her (i.e. Citymeals on Wheels and food banks)? Thirdly, is there some way that concerned audience members can offer assistance, such as a GoFundMe or a preferred charity?
As far as I know, Ng is aware of some community/charity groups in Chinatown. But I know there are elderly people including Ng who are somehow reluctant to reach out for help. The reasons might involve personal preferences, cultural issues, etc. It is a lot more complicated than what we think. I feel like it is the time to ask questions and figure it out together.
As to her family members, I have very limited access to them. To be honest, I don’t think it is fair to put blame on her children because we simply don’t know much about their family. They might have their own difficulties.
In terms of what we can do, I think we can keep our eyes open. When we see a need in our own community, we give a helping hand. It can be as simple as chatting with the elderly people in the street, buying them lunch and eating with them. This kind of support is especially important for those who are reluctant to reach out to the community centers and social services.
Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.
It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.
Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.
Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?
On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.
Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party. Leonhard was put on a team charged with re‑creating Berlin’s city government.
The president’s photo op outside St. John’s Church was emblematic of his appeal to the religious right.
He wielded the Bible like a foreign object, awkwardly adjusting his grip as though trying to get comfortable. He examined its cover. He held it up over his right shoulder like a crossing guard presenting a stop sign. He did not open it.
“Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked.
“It’s a Bible,” the president replied.
Even by the standards of Donald Trump’s religious photo ops, the dissonance was striking. Moments earlier, he had stood in the Rose Garden and threatened to unleash the military on unruly protesters. He used terms such as anarchy and domestic terror, and vowed to “dominate the streets.” To clear the way for his planned post-speech trip to St. John’s Church, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators.
The president is stuck in a vicious downward spiral.
We are in the Götterdämmerung now, the final phase of the Trump era. We began with the axis of adults that imperfectly constrained him. We then entered the age of hubris and action during which he systematically rid himself of the adults and was free to follow his whims. The third phase was the reckoning as he began to bump up against the contradictions of his own approach, on China and Iran in particular. Now we have finally arrived at the long-feared crisis and unraveling.
For three chaotic years, Donald Trump muddled through, at least in the eyes of Republicans, buoyed by the strong economy he inherited from his predecessor and powered forward by the long GOP wish list, which included, among many items, judicial appointments, deregulation, and the undoing of the Iran nuclear deal. Virtually every consequential and sympathetic analysis of the Trump administration, though, included a caveat: A serious crisis would upend any Republican progress and test the ill-equipped and vindictive president. Deep down, we all hoped the country would get lucky and slip through these four years without a paradigm-changing incident. But if luck is earned, we had no right to it.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.
The nationwide protests against police killings have been called un-American by critics, but rebellion has always been used to defend liberty.
Since the beginning of this country, riots and violent rhetoric have been markers of patriotism. When our Founding Fathers fought for independence, violence was the clarion call. Phrases such as “Live free or die,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” echoed throughout the nation, and continue today. Force and violence have always been used as weapons to defend liberty, because—as John Adams once said in reference to the colonists’ treatment by the British—“We won’t be their Negroes.”
Black rebellion and protest, though, have historically never been coupled with allegiance to American democracy. Today, peaceful demonstrations and violent riots alike have erupted across the country in response to police brutality and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Yet the language used to refer to protesters has included looters, thugs, and even claims that they are un-American. The philosophy of force and violence to obtain freedom has long been employed by white people and explicitly denied to black Americans.
To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.
It happened three months before the lynching of Isadora Moreley in Selma, Alabama, and two months before the lynching of Sidney Randolph near Rockville, Maryland.
On May 19, 1896, TheNew York Times allocated a single sentence on page three to reporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Constitutionalizing Jim Crow hardly made news in 1896. There was no there there. Americans already knew that equal rights had been lynched; Plessy was just the silently staged funeral.
Another racial text—published by the nation’s premier social-science organization, the American Economic Association, and classified by the historian Evelynn Hammonds as “one of the most influential documents in social science at the turn of the 20th century”—elicited more shock in 1896.
On who looters are, what they want, and why some protests are more likely to include them
For many Americans watching the country erupt in protests, the looting is the rub. Over the past week, thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities across the United States to denounce institutional racism and police violence after a Minneapolis man named George Floyd died when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. But the breaking of windows, burning of property, and stealing of goods that has accompanied peaceful demonstrations makes somepeople hesitant to throw their full support behind the protesters.
The pandemic has exposed the bitter terms of our racial contract, which deems certain lives of greater value than others.
Six weeks ago, Ahmaud Arbery went out and never came home. Gregory and Travis McMichael, who saw Arbery running through their neighborhood just outside of Brunswick, Georgia, and who told authorities they thought he was a burglary suspect, armed themselves, pursued Arbery, and then shot him dead.
As the nation convulsed, the White House went dark.
Last night, as protests convulsed Washington, D.C., the White House went dark. All the lights were off. The windows of the president’s official residence were darkened, and the floodlights outside extinguished.
The country is sick, angry, and divided, but it also finds itself leaderless. Trump has never shown any inclination or ability to soothe or console in moments of crisis. He wants the trappings of power, like showing up for a rocket launch, but he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty with the work of governing. And he continues to view himself as the president only of the minority who voted for him, not all Americans. These tendencies have converged in this moment.
Yesterday, when America needed real leadership, the office of the president stood dark—and vacant.