Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: An Interview with Deborah Zeigler


happy seniors

Deborah Zeigler

Deborah Zeigler

Formerly a life coach and career counselor,

Deb now spends her time as a poet, playwright, and community organizer.

Introduction by Dr. Gramma Karen: Deb Zeigler is my professional colleague and a dear friend for 20 years. When she recently told me that she had been invited to be a guest speaker at college classes in gerontology, I told her I would like to interview her about those presentations because I knew my readers would be interested. Happily, she agreed.

Note: By way of preparation for my interview with Deb, I learned the following:

  • Gerontology, the study of aging, focuses on many areas, including:
    • Social issues unique to aging populations.
    • Demographic trends and impacts.
    • Cultural and global differences in aging.
    • Social and public policy.
    • Issues related to retirement, death, and bereavement.
    • The physical, emotional, and financial implications of being an elder or taking care of an elder.
  • As a field of study, Gerontology is becoming more popular, especially at the graduate level. (General information about the field and programs.)
  • Currently, there are about 50 million people 65 and older. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates a steep increase in the population aged 65 and over, which is projected to reach 84 million by 2050.

No doubt about it: as our aging population increases, the need for gerontological support is going to become more important.

Karen: As you explained to me, Deb, you met with two different groups of college students studying gerontology.

Deb: That’s right. Both groups were asked to prepare by formulating questions for me — an 80-year-old retiree, who had agreed to entertain any and all of their questions to the best of her ability!

Karen: I’ve always known you to be very brave. Can you give us sense of the kinds of questions they had for you?

Deb: Sure. Their questions ranged from seeking factual information to more personal ones. This list pretty much captures what they were interested in.

  1. How much did your first apartment cost?
  2. Do you miss living in your previous home? (They knew that I currently live in a retirement community.)
  3. Do you have children? Do they live near you? Do you see them often?
  4. Where were you born and raised?
  5. Do you have a spouse who lives with you?
  6. Do you text and follow social media?
  7. Are people in your age group interested in sex?
  8. Are you afraid of dying?
  9. What were your goals when you were our age?
  10. What advice do you have for us?

Karen: Really interesting! Could you pick a couple of the questions asked of you and share with us how you responded to them? I hope you’ll pick #7.

Deb: Well, aren’t you cheeky! I’ll come back to that! Because they were college students, let me start with how I responded to #9, “What were my goals when I was a college student?”

I was very unfocused about what I wanted to pursue upon graduation. I did know that I wanted to work in some kind of social justice area; I wanted to enjoy my work; I wanted to see where my work led me. By way of background — I majored in International Relations in college. Between my junior and senior years, I went on an official US-USSR Student Cultural Exchange.

While still in college, I raised money to bail a friend out of jail who had been arrested during the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee in 1960.

My first job after graduation was traveling in the South to over 100 colleges and universities to raise money for an international NGO [non-governmental organization] called World University Service. It was a very enriching experience to be a young white woman in the segregated South prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Karen: I am going to guess that most, if not all, of those students had not even been born while you were doing all this. I wonder if they envisioned you walking hand in hand with Abraham Lincoln! Anyway, please, share another question.

Deb: No one says that explicitly, but sometimes I wonder! And then there is the question # 8, which is both is realistic and shows sensitivity: “Are you afraid of dying?”

I explain that I am not afraid of dying. However, I am concerned about being kept alive if I were to develop Alzheimer’s disease or be unable to make decisions regarding my health care. I am diligent about making my wishes known to my health care proxy, my heirs, and health care professionals.

Usually, I do not say that my wishes might include VSED (Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking) because I do not know the students. I feel this is a topic for a much longer conversation than a one-session class. Interestingly, a few times students have raised something related to VSED with me after the class, one-on-one.

Karen: How did you answer #10, “What advice do you have for us?”

Deb: To begin with, I congratulate them on being so savvy technologically. Then I also say I worry that their interpersonal communication skills in their professional lives and their personal relationships will be seriously diminished. Two examples of this — seeing people walking across a street while texting without looking up, or people at a table for two or more where each person is glued to a smartphone. Presumably, they are there together.

I encourage them to set those tech tools aside deliberately to have a really rich life. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to experience the benefits of both, that is, having technology and not having it.

Karen: We have time and space for you to share your response to one more question.

Deb: Okay, #7, Are people in your age group interested in sex?”

I have to admit that the question took me aback the first time someone asked it! It is not a typical “icebreaker”!

I say that if you are lucky enough have had a full, warm sexual relationship, there is a huge void if one’s spouse or partner is no longer living. But, as research bears out, closeness and intimacy come to mean more than sexual intercourse to many of us as we age.

When my husband died, I wrote a poem about the sadness I experienced coming home to an empty house, not having someone to share my day with, share a meal with, share my bed with.

If elders can be sexually active, that’s great, but it’s companionship and connection that take on great importance for the aging.

Karen: That’s a lovely response, Deb, and a nice way to end our interview.

On behalf of my readers, I want to thank you for helping us appreciate some of the topics on the minds of gerontology students. I wish space permitted us to learn about all your responses.

Deb: I’ve enjoyed sharing my experiences with students. I hope your readers find them helpful in stimulating conversations across generations of people in their own lives.

One final comment: I urge your readers to check out NCOA, National Council on Aging, to keep up with policies and volunteer opportunities that can affect our aging population.

Note from Dr. Gramma Karen: After this interview was completed, The New York Times published an article by Paula Span, “Older People Need Geriatricians. Where Will They Come From?”, discussing the implications of the shortage of physicians who specialize in the care of older patients.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Its All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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