[ Let Inga Tell You, La Jolla Light, published October 2, 2023] 2023
I remember reading in some long-ago anthropology class that some Eskimo cultures, not wishing to waste precious food resources on non-productive elders, set them adrift on an ice floe, and waved bye-bye.
Inquiring minds, particularly retired, aged minds, wanted to know: did this really happen? Did the oldies actually end up as polar bear brunch? Froze to death? Landed in Tahiti and started a new life? Regardless, it would have been two more places at Christmas dinner for the folks back home.
The ice floe thing obviously worked better in cold climates than, say, the Kalahari Desert, where the equivalent was probably tying a tying a slab of raw meat around mom and dad and leaving them on the savannah. Depending on the folks mobility, they didn't even need the slab of meat.
Those same retired aged minds are asking: am I in danger?
Well, not of ice floes specifically which are fortuitously scarce in this area, but certainly their symbolic version. I'll be genuinely worried if my husband, Olof, goes first. My sons and daughters-in-law have demanding careers and don't even live anywhere close to me. Most of the nursing homes I researched for a relative a few years ago made the whole ice floe thing (or even the slab of meat) sound like the better deal. Well, maybe not immediately but at least somebody would be having a good day.
As it turns out, the dispensing of what were known as "useless eaters" (i.e., elderly folks who were no longer able to physically contribute to the economy of a society) weren't unheard of, especially in times of famine. The ancient Keians, for example, attempting to preserve a dwindling food supply, decided to vote everyone over 60 off the island. One suspects that the people over 60 didn't get a vote. You can see it now: "All in favor of dispensing with the sexagenarian set say 'aye'. Oh, look, it s unanimous! See ya, folks!" The geezers apparently got a hemlock mojito for dinner.
There are a worrisome number of terms to describe deleting the oldies from the family circle: senicide, senilicide, geronticide, senio-euthenasia, and even the ever-popular modern version, "granny dumping". How the "useless eaters" were dispatched was, of course, largely dependent on the geography involved. In one alleged method among long-ago Eskimos, the whole village would pick up and move during the night while the oldies slept. (The origin of "ghosting". )
Grandpa wakes up and says, "Hey, where did everybody go? I could swear there was a village here yesterday." Apparently, this method allowed the abandonee to either find his way back to the group thus proving his continued value, or succumb back at home when he realizes they also took his walker. Frankly, this method seems particularly low to me. You may need the food but you don t have to be mean about it.
I guess there's no nice way to say, "Sorry Mom and dad, but you've had your last meal. In fact, you're about to be one." And the folks are thinking, "Just as I always feared. There is no gratitude."
While some societies have traditionally revered their elders (well, at least while there was plenty of food on the table), recent articles have suggested that modern societies are questioning the value of the old. This is not news to the old.
In January of 2011, the first Baby Boomers turned 65, and have added another 10,000 per day to these ranks every since. By 2030, at least 18% of the population will be in that group. So this whole ice floe thing is a pretty big topic, at least among those of us in the ice floe demographic.
(BTW, will global warming reduce the number of available ice floes? Somebody needs to be looking into this. In this one more thing we oldies will have to compete for - the ice floe that doesn't melt underneath you before the polar bear even shows up?)
For us boomers, it might not be so much an issue of food insecurity, but care giving shortages. Diapers are much cuter on infants. Having been heavily involved in the final years of a close relative who was both physically and mentally disabled, I can attest that they're not all that fun to be around, not to mention seriously labor-intensive. And did I mention expensive?
Increasingly, among people I know, it's the oldies looking for the ice floe opportunities themselves rather than waiting for the kids to set them adrift. No one wants to be a burden, financially or otherwise. And maybe those old folks are/were ready to go. I fantasize them floating off to sea saying the equivalent of, "Don't tell the kids but we just so sick of trying to get reliable Wi-fi in the igloo. They couldn't upgrade to a better cable provider? Hey - is that a polar bear over there?"