Myths and misconceptions abound about older adults.
Despite many senior citizens demonstrating their unquenchable desire for living an active life and doing everything from skydiving to holding top-level jobs well beyond their 70s, the demographic suffers from a negative image. The public generally pigeonholes older adults as technology-averse, not “woke” or engaged in political and societal issues, unwilling to learn new things and lacking a sense of adventure.
According to experts, viewing older adults through such a negative, stereotypical lens smacks of ageism.
While the public gives younger folks a wide berth to be different from one another — whether bookworms, star athletes, couch potatoes or musical virtuosos, no matter how differently older people act from one another, “it’s not enough to combat ageism,” said Toni Calasanti professor of sociology at Virginia Tech and a faculty affiliate of its Center for Gerontology and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Along those lines, Paul Irving, who serves as chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, chairman of Encore.org and distinguished scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology, noted that while some cognitive decline is a natural byproduct of age, affecting one-third of people over 80 years old and half of those over 85, the reverse is also true. Two-thirds of those over age 80 and half of those over age 85 experience no dementia — “and we rarely talk about that.”
With that in mind, here are older Long Islanders whose actions and interests debunk negative notions about seniors.
Myth: Seniors are technology-averse
Michael Usoskin’s Google Pixel 3XL smartphone has everything from an AI-enabled call-screening convenience to a personal safety app, not to mention a bunch of downloaded programs, including for discount parking in New York and restaurant reviews.
The Port Washington resident’s phone also functions as his personal tech lab. Before apps become available to a wider audience, he voluntarily tests and rates their unreleased capabilities and improvements, including new Facebook, Instagram and Google features. Currently, his phone has 28 beta versions of apps.
“I love to explore new technology when it comes out,” said Usoskin, 63, a project manager at a class action claims administration services firm.
And as an early adopter of Google Travel Guide, he received a free Google Home Mini voice-controlled speaker, whose capabilities encompass responding to trivia questions and adding items to a grocery list. The device, however, proved to be too much technology for Usoskin’s family, who feared it violated their privacy and made him disconnect the unit.
Nevertheless, his wife, Adina Genn, a journalist, has benefited from his tech skills. When her assignment, for example, involves extrapolating information and quotes from a speech, Usoskin employs his Google Recorder app to record and transcribe it in real time as a text file, which he emails to Genn.
In his daily life, Usoskin’s technology affinity translates into using mobile banking (such contactless payment apps as Google Pay, Venmo and PayPal) as well as a near field-communication-enabled bank card); doing online research to buy a car with a raft of technological safety features; and getting a regular dose of tech-centric articles on his phone from Android Authority and Ars Technica among others, and diverse news from other media, including BuzzFeed, Vox and Politico. He also streams Hulu, Amazon and Netflix on a flat-screen TV.
“If you have the curiosity about learning new things and figuring out how they work, you can be any age,” Usoskin said. “You don’t need to be young.”
Myth: Seniors aren’t 'woke'
In the Town of Babylon, Madeline Quintyne-McConney shoulders myriad leadership responsibilities — as a public official and private citizen.
Since 2009, Quintyne-McConney, 66, has served as commissioner of Human Services. Working collaboratively with others, including fellow commissioners, Quintyne-McConney advocates for services, amenities and conveniences, such as a grocery store, bank and children’s day care center, to transform the community into a vibrant hub of economic activity, enhance the lives of its residents and help retain its college graduates.
“We want them to come back and give back,” said the North Babylon resident, who grew up in North Amityville.
Quintyne-McConney’s vision also extends to what she doesn’t want in her beloved community — no “hanging-out kind of stores — no bars, no liquor stores and no 24-hour convenience stores.”
With her responsibilities encompassing senior services and in the face of COVID-19’s potential dangers for older adults, Quintyne-McConney has increased transportation to medical appointments, shopping and banks, and her department is distributing emergency food, masks, hand sanitizer and informational materials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To some extent, Quintyne-McConney’s involvement in community affairs is genetic: Both of her parents served as role models in their community activism. While her mother, 86, focused on making the town safer, including securing a school crossing guard, her father, who died in 2004, worked with other people on such initiatives as founding a halfway house for substance abusers and establishing the North Amityville Community Development Corp.
In recognition of his leadership, the municipal edifice that houses her office, as well as educational and summer programs, is called the Irwin Quintyne Building.
“I think about retirement,” Quintyne-McConney said, “but how can I leave what my father built and isn’t finished? I have to complete the community development.”
In her private life, Quintyne-McConney ‘s actions also demonstrate her commitment to the community and its people.
She serves on the board of Concerned Citizens of North Amityville and the executive board and public policy committee of the NAACP, Central Long Island Branch. In addition, she is the first vice president and Suffolk County chair of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, as well as chair of its public policy committee, which oversees all programming, including community forums on such issues as the dangers of vaping.
“We want to help the whole person to become a healthy citizen,” said Quintyne-McConney, who returned to school at age 60 to get a master’s in social work from Stony Brook University.
She is also an active member of Bethel AME Church in Copiague. Along with participating in such volunteer efforts as delivering food to community members, she serves on its Steward Board, which is responsible for the church’s financial and spiritual governance.
Plus, for about 12 years, she has chaired the North Amityville Parade and Festival Day, which her mother helped start 46 years ago.
And last month, after the tragic death of George Floyd, the activist marched in Amityville and rode in the NAACP car caravan to the Executive Building in Mineola.
“I’m definitely woke,” she said.
Myth: Seniors don’t want to learn new things
In 2015, two years after his wife died, Erv Hoffman took up the piano. And about nine months ago, he added ballroom dancing to his repertoire.
“I wanted to do something for myself and learn something that I might enjoy,” said Hoffman, 73, a Jericho resident and the CFO of an elastic manufacturer in Long Island City. “My other options were to sit and watch TV and read a book, which are interesting but they get boring. These activities structure my life and are fulfilling.”
Until Hoffman started doing scales on the Yamaha upright, which he had purchased long ago for his two daughters (now married and mothers), the instrument stood silent for 23 years. “It became a piece of furniture for pictures,” Hoffman said.
Via Google, the septuagenarian found a piano teacher who, up until the pandemic, was coming to Hoffman’s home for his weekly lessons — either on Saturday or Sunday, depending on their schedules.
“I started from scratch — with no idea which key was C,” said Hoffman, whose piano and dance lessons resumed this month.
Although he generally works on increasingly complicated compositions, with their musical notations a “little overwhelming at times,” Hoffman plows ahead. He devotes 15 to 30 minutes a day to hitting the right notes and achieving the perfect tempo.
During the lessons, Hoffman and his teacher finesse one of Hoffman’s personal favorites, such as the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from “Evita,” “Somewhere My Love” from “Dr. Zhivago” and a musical piece that the teacher suggests.
“It took a few days of practicing Brahms’s ‘Lullaby,’ and now I’m working on perfecting it,” Hoffman said. “There’s a reason they say practice makes perfect.”
But during Hoffman’s hiatus from his private dance instruction at a Syosset studio, he didn’t attempt to hone his one-step-two-step since his home lacks sufficient space to do so, he noted.
Consequently, his dancing has taken a “couple of steps back,” and the socialization that Hoffman had been hoping for, once he had become more comfortable with his dance routine, has been put on “an extended hold.”
Still, from the get-go, Hoffman’s ultimate motivation for taking up ballroom dancing lessons, he said, was a desire to learn “for my own enjoyment.”
Myths: Seniors aren’t adventurous
Back in 2000, when Dr. Robert Dresdale vacationed with his family in Europe, the Roslyn resident was so disappointed by the continent’s homogeneity that he told his wife, Isabel Eisen, “We have to start going places before they get westernized.”
Since then, the couple have traversed the globe about twice a year, regardless of the inconveniences, health risks and physical dangers, including a rigorous ascent on a glacier, an enraged elephant, food poisoning and non-air-conditioned huts in jungles. COVID-19 is the only threat that has led them to postpone future travels.
In fact, soon after 9/11, when many people temporarily stopped traveling abroad, the couple took their first adventure journey — an organized group trip on the Amazon River. Their activities included fishing for piranha, meeting with isolated native communities and swimming in the Amazon.
“That trip fueled our desire to continue with adventure travel,” the retired cardiologist said. Both Dresdale, 73, and Eisen, also 73, who had been a saleswoman at the Americana Shopping Center in Manhasset, stopped working three years ago.
Favoring group tours to destinations that would otherwise be hard for them to reach on their own, they have visited all seven continents and 107 countries, including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Botswana, Morocco, Egypt, Israel and Tanzania. In the course of their expeditions, they have slept under nets, rode elephants and scaled mountains.
“Once you do something adventurous, it lures you to do more because you realize the world is so fascinating,” Eisen said.
Still, the trips have tested their mettle.
In 2006, before starting their Papua New Guinea tour, they flew to Sydney, Australia, where Eisen fractured the top of her foot and required crutches for the remainder of their vacation. Yet, that didn’t stop her from climbing Papua New Guinea’s mud banks.
Dresdale, who has consumed roasted zebu (a subspecies of domestic cattle), in Madagascar and roasted beetles in Namibia, was unfazed by the cheek infection he got in Papua New Guinea after eating a stone-ground betel nut, which acts as a stimulant. As he does on all their trips, he had a ready supply of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics.
Dresdale has also petted tigers in Thailand — against the tour guide’s advice — and swam in the frigid Arctic Ocean wearing only a bathing suit.
Noting that she is afraid to walk in grass known to have snakes and steers clear of wild animals, Eisen said her husband was the more courageous one of the pair.
“I do stuff, but I have my wits about me,” she said.
Despite their journeys’ potential for danger, Dresdale said that “plenty” of their fellow travelers are in their late 70s to early 80s.
“It takes a certain type of person to do these trips,” he said.
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