The Invisible Generation

03/25/2015 08:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

Late one night in mid December, I stood in the check-out line at a Target store to purchase several children's toys for a holiday fundraiser. The line was moving slowly, and the people ahead of me were grumbling about the cashier's inability to move things along faster. I understood their frustration -- my feet ached from being on them all day and I desperately wanted to be home in my cozy bed.

When it was finally my turn to check out, I was startled to see an elderly woman hunched over the cash register. Her expression was one of weariness and defeat after listening the harsh criticisms from the shoppers in front of me. As she carefully scanned the toys I'd selected, I couldn't help but wonder what circumstances in life had made it necessary for this woman to work through the night in a busy department store. I knew her feet had to hurt far worse than mine, and that she deserved to be home resting rather than putting up with the verbal abuse from rude customers.

After ringing up my purchase, the elderly woman said that she hoped the children I'd bought the gifts for would love their new toys, and with a tired smile, wished me a Merry Christmas. Walking out to my car that evening, I felt like a heavy rock was lodged deep in my belly.

I thought about the woman for days afterwards. Would she need to put in extra hours at work through the holiday season just to make ends meet? How many more times would she be forced to endure the lack of common courtesy from impatient customers?

Whatever happened to compassion and respect for the elderly?

Although we live in a youth-oriented society, there's a quiet generation of people who are being blatantly shunned and abused. They are the "invisible" generation; the elderly among us who are often regarded as feeble-minded and lacking in the ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way. This ageist attitude has robbed senior citizens of their self-worth, leaving them the victims of prejudice and disrespect. Compassion, courtesy and respect have gone by the wayside.

Until we walk in their shoes, it's hard to imagine the quality of life that our elderly face. Their financial situations are often compromised by the death of a spouse, rising medical bills, and a Social Security allotment that's too small to cover the cost of living. Societal ideologies have contributed to the belief that the elderly are unable to function efficiently, and consequently, they're excluded from the very thing they need most -- intergenerational socialization.

I'm ashamed to admit that when I was in my early twenties, I was completely self-absorbed and had absolutely no interest in my elders. For several months, my grandmother lived with us when she was incapable of living by herself. My mother was solely responsible for feeding her, dressing her and changing her adult diapers. I was too busy having fun with my friends to bother asking if my mother needed help. On the few occasions that she did ask me to watch my grandmother so that she could run errands, I balked at the idea of caring for a woman in diapers.

I cringe now when I think back on those days. I watched my mother fight tears of frustration every time she had to lift my grandmother out of bed, or continually remind her where she was once senility crept in.

And I did nothing to ease her burden.

I look at my mother now, a widow in her mid-eighties, and I marvel at her bravery and strength. But this doesn't stop me from worrying about her every time she steps out of her home. Is she invisible to others? Do impatient drivers cut her off on the highway and yell at her as they speed by? Do people ignore her when they see her struggling to lift heavy bags from the grocery store into her car? Is she taken advantage of by scam artists who view her as a vulnerable, elderly woman? My mother is intelligent and fiercely independent, but it hurts my heart to think of someone ignoring her or mistreating her in any way.

Age should never define a person or diminish our respect for them. When I see elderly people, I'm reminded that this is a generation that was raised during the Depression era. They fought wars for our freedom and faced unthinkable trials and tribulations so that we could have the liberties that we enjoy today. They deserve to be honored, loved and have their dignity preserved.

I still see my mother as the graceful, vibrant woman she was when she was raising me. She taught me compassion and love through the sacrifices she made for our family. I can only hope to be half the woman that she is once I reach my eighties. She is, and always will be, my hero.

I don't see an "invisible" generation when I look upon the elderly. I see people of strength, wisdom and integrity, and the backbone of generations to come.