There are two words that many folks across this land, and several of us in the NFESH office, eagerly await every spring. “Play ball!” heralds the beginning of that great American pastime, major league baseball, assures us that summer is just around the corner and promises to provide entertainment and suspense even into early fall. In this unusual year, this COVID year, just as with everything else that we had once expected to move along according to longstanding tradition or established routine, major league baseball has been different…and almost eerily so.
For one thing, the season is much shorter than in past years. In addition, some players have opted out of participating, and a number of teams have had to suspend or postpone games because some players tested positive for the coronavirus. Perhaps most noticeable and disorienting has been the fact that baseball teams have been forced to play without their fans present. Fans, even longtime season ticket holders, have had to watch games on a television screen. Instead of hearing the cheers and jeers of a live crowd, players and viewers alike have been subjected to adapting to virtual crowd noise, the taped rendition of fan reaction that some hidden person mysteriously blares forth from a loudspeaker. Reactions to all this have been mixed. On the one hand, some say, it represents that good old American ingenuity and the ability to adapt. On the other, some would argue, it demonstrates the far-reaching and deleterious impact on society of this serious and frightening disease.
Social distancing has taken on an even stranger and more ominous meaning. Perhaps, if one really stops to think about it, nothing has become more emblematic of how different everyday life in the present is from what we have known it to be for decades than the rows of seats that encircle baseball professionals on the field while they play. In some venues all the seats are empty, and in others a couple of sections are “peopled” by life-size cardboard cutouts.
And what does all this have to do with the long-standing issues that NFESH has tackled and those organizations and people we work with address? Fair question. The answer could be hiding in the metaphors that both those silent, two-dimensional cardboard figures and those rows of empty seats portray. Our country’s seniors — who were among the first cohorts of people instructed to sequester at home for the sake of their health and welfare –are, or are at risk of, becoming people whose real voices aren’t being heard or, worse, community members who are entirely invisible. Yes, we are engaging in a bit of hyperbole here, but we are doing so deliberately to make a critical and overlooked point.
When the pandemic began, we were seeing lots of public and media attention focused on our seniors and their plight in isolation. Over time the attention has been directed elsewhere; but the reality has not changed much. In this context it is not unreasonable to imagine that hundreds of thousands of senior citizens across America just might soon begin to regard themselves to be as voiceless as cardboard cutouts or as inconsequential as empty seats.
So we hope that the virtual reality of the baseball stadium might serve to remind all of us who is missing from our daily lives and how important they really are. Soon enough, we hope, shuttered senior centers will reopen and the sound of laughter and cheer (the real kind) will resonate in community after community. We know that senior center directors and staff across this country are ready and waiting for their long-awaited (re)opening day. We at NFESH will be here cheering them on.