William H. Gates Sr. - Senior Services, Lillian Rice Senior Center
November 14, 2001
Prepared remarks by William H. Gates Sr., co-chair
I'm pleased and proud to be here at the ground breaking for this Center, which has been graciously named for my mother.
It has occurred to me that in today’s culture when people think of a guy talking about his mother they might envision him in a small, dimly-lit room, with a psychologist in the corner.
People talking about their mothers in large, light rooms with a live audience present are generally on “Oprah.”
So I’ve decided to keep that part brief.
Like many of you here today, my mother was an active volunteer who would have very much liked the notion of a center like this.
And as a mother she was – to her credit – so relentless at focusing her children on their studies
that I can actually relate to the “Peanuts” cartoon where Charlie Brown says he thinks the next best thing to a college education is a pushy mother.
I am immensely proud and pleased to have this Center named for my mother.
Names are important. The reason I know that is that I seem to have lost mine.
The odd thing about it is that the new name I’ve been given makes me an even more appropriate speaker for this event.
You see, the young people at our Foundation don’t know I know this, but they’ve given me a new one-word name, the sole purpose of which is to distinguish me from my son.
That one-word name is: Senior.
I overhear them saying, “ Have you seen Senior?” “Was Senior in that meeting?”
Now at our Foundation there are no freshmen…or sophomores…or juniors.
But there is apparently one senior who, as far as I can see, has little hope of graduating.
I graduated from being a lawyer, I thought, into retirement.
That changed the day my son sent me an article about the number of people in the world—especially children—who still die from diseases we think of as long ago eradicated in this country.
The note attached to it, said “Dad, maybe we ought to do something about this.”
Until that moment, my retirement plans did not include travel to places like Mozambique, Haiti and Bangladesh. And I had no thought whatsoever of a second career.
But life presents us with unexpected opportunities.
Being a part of this Center is actually an unexpected opportunity for our Foundation in that our focus is really on global health and learning, and not seniors.
It seems that an unexpected opportunity for many Americans today is the opportunity to live longer.
I think the life expectancy of a typical citizen of Uganda is in the neighborhood of only 47 years.
Living longer than that is for the well-off and healthy.
So in a global sense, having seniors to worry about is really a high-class problem for a society to have.
By 2030, more than 20 per cent of our population will be older than 65. That means we’re going to have a greater percentage of older people, over the entire country, than the state of Florida has today.
And, the fastest growing age cohort in the United States today includes those 85 years old and older.
That’s unique in all of history.
Providing for those oldest seniors takes some doing in that they have a significantly higher incidence of dependence and disability than those aged 65-84.
Of course knowing how to deal with the elderly will become increasingly important in our society. By 2050 there may be as many as one million people in this country (or about 1 in 26 Baby Boomers) who will be over the age of 100.
That being the case, in addition to providing many important things to seniors, this Center will allow us to learn more about how to support the growing number of people who will be aging in this country.
For example, one thing I’ve learned already is that what we might think of as the growing “problem” of seniors is masking an enormous resource.
I don’t honestly think of myself as being a senior. And I think of the opportunity that’s been presented to me in my later years as atypical. And yet, the overwhelming majority of seniors today are healthy, vital people capable of making an even greater contribution than they are now to our society.
Older volunteers, as an example, are vital to Senior Services programs, among them programs that are starting to touch the lives of seniors in other places.
The Senior Wellness Project being run by our Senior Services is being replicated in a number of places around the country.
That’s not surprising when you consider that follow-up research has shown that even frail older seniors, including those with chronic health conditions, showed a 72% reduction in hospital days after becoming involved with that program.
And Senior Services is doing so many other things.
The home sharing program that keeps seniors in familiar surroundings while it provides safe housing for part-time helpers like college students, and companionship for both.
The inexpensive home repair service that makes a clogged pipe something less than a nightmare for low-income seniors.
Legal assistance and help at untangling problems with social security or Medicare.
An information line.
A corps of volunteer drivers.
Meals on Wheels and other nutritional programs that serve more than 700,000 meals to elderly people every year.
But the menu of activities and some of those statistics I gave you don’t tell the whole story.
For example, knowing that there are some 350 volunteer drivers who take housebound seniors to things like doctors' appointments doesn’t tell you how often those drivers take the longer, more scenic route home from an appointment. They do it so that their passengers can enjoy things like the view of the water from Magnolia. Things they saw more often when they were driving, themselves.
And that definition of the home-sharing program I just gave you doesn’t tell you about the medical student and housemate of a senior who, when she graduates, insists on interviewing, herself, candidates for the job of the person who will replace her.
There are so many human stories hidden in the statistics.
Those volunteers and those of you here who are sharing your lives and resources with seniors and senior services are into a worthy enterprise.
A moment ago I mentioned the contributions our growing population of seniors are capable of making.
I don’t know that we often think about how the history books are full of people whose greatest work was done in their later years.
Justice William O. Douglas, the sculptor Louise Nevelson, Marian Anderson, George Balanchine, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Hitchcock, Jacques Cousteau, Rembrandt, Bach, and others. And one of my personal heroes John Gardner, a former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, is still a pre-eminent scholar, writer and professor emeritus at Stanford University. He is 89.
Sometimes I think we’re quick to spot the limitations aging imposes and miss its compensations.
A Ph.D. studying the subject of age and greatness wrote that the painter Claude Monet had cataracts, which distorted his perception, but he used that distortion to paint his water lilies.
She wrote that what we experience in his paintings is delicacy, lightness, beauty and softness coming not from perfect eyesight, but from perfect insight into the more subtle characteristics of nature.
Healthy seniors today are doing a lot of volunteering.
One senior who participates in that Wellness Program I just mentioned, is a hospice volunteer who also works at the Food Bank.
And according to an author named Mark Freedman, nearly half a million Americans over the age of 55 are volunteers for the National Senior Service Corps.
Retired medical professionals are providing medical and dental services to people who can’t afford to pay for them.
Hundreds of older people are in the Peace Corps today.
And the list goes on.
Even the older homebound seniors – like some among the seniors who will be served through this Center – have ways of making a contribution via the telephone.
I hear there’s actually a latchkey program for children through which older people phone a child who is alone when he or she gets home from school to see that everything’s okay and even offer help with homework.
Again, what keeps seniors from doing more is often not biology, but what we think of them.
Certainly, old age is not the quintessential cure for a bad temperament. But positive-minded seniors have a lot to offer.
I have friends far older than I am in whom I see – in full flower – the qualities most of us aspire to have.
Qualities like resilience, a resilience that comes from having lived through things. Wisdom. Courage. The courage it takes to go on. And perhaps most of all, perspective. The kind of perspective that allows them to reassure a younger person living through what feels like the end of the world that it will be okay.
Along those lines, in the play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” those qualities are brought to life – humorously and poignantly – in the character of an old French woman who is talking a young man out of taking his own life. I’d like to read that passage from the play to you right now.
She tells the young man: “ To be alive, Roderick, is to be fortunate. Of course in the morning when you first awake it doesn’t always seem so very gay. When you take your hair out of the drawer, and your teeth out of the glass, you are quite likely to feel a little out of place in this naughty world. Particularly, if you’ve just been dreaming that you’re a little girl on a pony looking for strawberries in the woods.
But all you need in order to feel the call of life again is a letter in the mail giving you your schedule for the day. You write it to yourself the day before… that’s the safest.
And once I’ve washed my face, and powdered it, and put on my pins, rings, and brooches… when I am dressed for my coffee, I have a good look at myself. Not in the glass naturally…it lies. But in the brass gong.
Then I’m armed. I’m strong. I’m ready to begin again. And after that…everything is pure delight.
First I read the morning paper. Not these current sheets. The March 22, 1903 issue that has some delightful scandal, and the last minute bulletin of the death of Leonide Lebalk. She used to live next door, poor woman, and when I learn of her death every morning it gives me quite a shock.
Then it is time to dress for your morning walk. And I begin my rounds. I have my cats to feed, my dogs to pet, my plants to water.
I have to see what the evil ones are up to … those who hate animals, who hate flowers, who hate people. When they come out (in the morning) to pull up my flowers and poison my dogs, I’m there, ready!
Yes the flowers have been marvelous this year.
And the butcher’s dog – despite the wretch who tried to poison him – is friskier than ever.
And that’s only the morning. Wait ‘til I tell you about the afternoon.”
Older people, I think, are representative of one of those unexpected opportunities I mentioned when I started out. A resource whose gifts in many ways are yet to be discovered by our culture. Of course, I think you know that.
So I think you’ll enjoy this note written by a senior to express her thanks to Senior Services
and the volunteer drivers who took her to her doctor appointments. She writes:
“There comes a time in life, when one finds themselves up in years – not feeling old, but being received that way. Not feeling up to fending for yourself sometimes. And needing a little privacy from your friends. It’s uplifting to know that there are so many wonderful people in this world.”
Then she adds:
“Please find enclosed a check for 20 dollars.”
In closing let me just say that our Foundation is extremely proud to lay our gift next to her contribution. And next to the gifts of so many of you who are here with us tonight to celebrate this great occasion.