I have been trying to isolate the blog from the Covid-19 virus pandemic, (a little genealogical social distancing) but decided I should discuss the health challenges that my generation faced. After all, everyone seems convinced that we elderly who were spawned in the Silent Generation are most at risk.
If there is one lesson that the Silent Generation wants to pass on to the other generations, it is that we must work together, as a community to successfully survive these massive challenges. Our parents generation joined together in unprecedented actions and we honor them with the title The Greatest Generation. We need to learn from their actions.
Then it comes to generations, we hear a lot these days about the Millenials–everyone likes to blame them for everything. And the Baby Boomers, who believe that everything is all about them– are verging on proud of the fact that they have reached an age where they are in the most vulnerable class for infection by Covid-19. So how does the present Covid-19 virus compare with the health concerns my own older generation have faced? My inclination is to whine, “Life just hasn’t been fair.”
The Silent Generation
I am a member of the Silent Generation. People who like to categorize such things, say that people born between 1928 and 1945 belong to the Silent Generation. Before us, came the Greatest Generation (belatedly named that because of their bravery in WWII and their rebuilding spree after the war) and after us, came the Baby Boomers (1946-1964). Next came Gen X (1965-1980) and then the Millenials (1981-1996). Of course there are more, but I want to narrow the focus to these five, and particularly my own Silent Generation. My children fall on the cusp of Baby Boomer/Gen X.
Our parents had lived through the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. Most of us arrived on the scene in time to understand and be frightened by the War. I wrote about some of my war memories here. The unfortunate children lost a parent or other close relative to the War. I was lucky and that did not happen to me.
Those two factors, Great Depression and World War, deeply affected the psyche of our generation. It also meant there were fewer of us because our parents lived in uncertain times and many were reluctant to have many children.
We inherited a sense of frugality, which helps in situations that we find ourselves in today, like avoiding excess trips to stores. Because we inherited a sense of pessimism and fear due to economic and political disaster, we coped by keeping our heads down. That is why the name Silent Generation came about. However, don’t let that fool you. We also provided the leaders and many of the workers in the Civil Rights Movement. We women were pioneers in the Women’s Rights/Equal Rights Amendment fight. And those who went into health care fields conquered many of the diseases that had plagued our earlier lives.
Diseases Faced by the Silent Generation
But today, March 2020, all eyes are focused on an enormous challenge caused by a virus called the Novel Virus, or Covid-19. We keep saying we have never seen anything like it. However, if you look at the challenges faced by our Silent Generation, you can see that we have fought such wars before.
Childhood Diseases of the Silent Generation
Isolation and Quarantine. As children, our parents expected we would get the big three childhood diseases: Measles, Mumps and Chickenpox. Unlucky children might also get smallpox or scarlet fever. There were no vaccines. There was no surefire cure. You just rode it out. Mother served us jello and Vernor’s Ginger Ale. I read lots of books. I particularly liked to read a poem by Robert Louis Stephenson who had personal experience with child sickness. The Land of Counterpane comes from “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”
“When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day. “
After the 1944 creation of the Public Health Service, Public Health Nurses arrived on the scene. I clearly remember when my brother and I had measles abot 1948. The Public Health Nurse came to the house and checked on us, and then put a cardboard sign on our front door announcing the quarantine of our house.
Today, instead of assuming that children will get these diseases and the household will be quarantined, the diseases are rare. Scientists developed vaccines: Chicken Pox (1964) ; Measles (1969); Mumps (1971) . Smallpox ended in the U.S. by 1980.
Temporary closing of businesses, stricter isolation in summer months. Another serious disease threatened us and frightened us even more than the 3 childhood diseases. Polio outbreaks occurred in the summer and public gatherings were limited, swimming pools closed, and newsreels at the movie theater filled with footage of children lying trapped in iron lungs. It was a frightening disease. The ban on swimming pools and gatherings created inconvenience during the summer break from school, but unlike the other diseases we had faced, we felt we could do something to beat this one. Kids in the 1950s and 1960s eagerly joined in collecting dimes for the March of Dimes to fight polio. And we all rejoiced at the work of Jonas Salk, who created a barrier in the form of a drop of liquid on a cube of sugar that would immunize against polio.
Silent Generation in College
Development of new medicines and medical decisions. When we moved on to college, the development of a birth control pill was underway. The idea caught the attention of most every woman, and throngs flocked to doctor’s offices for the pill. At first it was only available for menstrual irregularity–not birth control–and hundreds of thousands of women developed menstrual irregularity. When I got married in 1960, my doctor could prescribe the pill, but no one was sure how long it was safe to take it. Before 1960, young women went to the Planned Parenthood office for birth control pills before doctor’s offices were permitted to prescribe.
Of course there was a catch. Those early pills had been scientifically tested, but now with hundreds of thousands women taking them, we began to see some problems–like increased ovarian cancer rates . So we were, in a sense, test subjects for how this new drug would work in the long term. By 1988, a new, safer, decreased dose pill became available. By then those who started taking the pill in the 60s were no longer on it, and we had no idea what the lasting effects might be.
Silent Generation Gets Married and Starts Families
Unintended consequences. Another drug for women turned out to be a worse disaster. To fight nausea, doctors gave Thalidomide to pregnant women in the early 1960s. Within a few years the doctors knew that the drug was causing horrendous birth defects, and the drug disappeared from the market. But it was the men and women of my generation who lived with this medical disaster.
Government messages drive behavior changes. Finally, we went to the movies and the glamorous romantic leads inevitably smoked cigarettes as they bantered with clever lines. So naturally, we decided smoking was sophisticated and romantic, and we smoked up a storm. We began play smoking with candy cigarettes when we were very small. When we got older, the tobacco companies ratcheted up the pressure. They shipped sample packs of cigarettes to colleges and handed them out at banquets, dances, sporting events. The companies hired students to stand on the Oval and pass out the small packs of cigarettes. Somebody convinced us that the correct social behavior included offering our guests cigarettes as well as booze.
It wasn’t until 1964 when the first Surgeon General’s report on the effect of smoking came out, that society began to act. I remember my father , a smoker, teasing my husband and me. He and my mother had bought me a car, and he drove it from Ohio to Arizona to deliver it in 1964.
“You notice it has no ashtray,” he said. “I figured you two would read and follow the Surgeon General’s report.”
We did not immediately follow that no smoking guidance, but within the next dozen years, we had both quit smoking. The unprecedented national campaign, pushed forward by the government, meant that everyone knew the risks of smoking. Whether they followed advice or not.
Misinformation and behavior changes. In the eighties, another particularly frightening health threat emerged–AIDS. Within the wider population, authorities and organizations battled misinformation. Medical researchers got to work and today instead of being a death sentence, AIDS is a disease that people live with. But the existence of AIDS led to many direct and indirect societal changes from recognition of the gay community to more caution in sexually active adults.
The Silent Generation, a Retrospective
So while some pretty wonderful things happened during the Silent Generation’s adulthood (roughly 1948 to the present), we lived through World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and what somebody recently dubbed our present crisis, World War C. We also faced Senator McCarthy, race riots, Anti-War demonstrations, and many threats to our physical health. ( I have not even mentioned the many virus and bacterial-caused diseases that continue to threaten humankind in addition to Covid-19.)
It seems unfair that we were in the correct age range to suffer through those early childhood diseases, land smack in the middle of the polio epidemic and then served as guinea pigs for women’s medications. If we survived all that, we find ourselves a target again. Most of those earlier health threats have disappeared because of brilliant researchers, awareness of the public health system, and community action. We just hope that all those other generations will take seriously the needed community action to defeat the present challenge. Thanks.
P.S. I belatedly realized that I should add this note. We are very fortunate during the present virus pandemic, despite the fact that we are targeted. That is because our lives are very little disrupted. Even our income stream stays pretty much the same (provided the stock market returns to normal–which hits some people hard). But we feel much compassion for the younger generations–our children and grandchildren–who are faced with abrupt changes in life style and income. And we are so grateful to those who are checking up on us, running errands for us, and just staying in touch. Thanks again.