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Worth a Listen: Living in the 'Gray Area' of Aging

A podcast from Columbia students on growing older around New York City

By Grace Birnstengel
June 8, 2018

The challenges of aging are enormous everywhere. Add living in, or around, a place like New York City — an extraordinarily expensive, ever-changing metropolis, and the challenges become more layered and complex.

Gray Area Podcast
The four "Gray Area" producers, from left to right: Sarah Wyman, Amara Omeokwe, Jennifer Sigl, Steph Beckett

Four graduate-level journalism students at Columbia University took on some of these difficult and underreported topics for their master’s thesis project, a superb, four-episode podcast called “Gray Area.” Under the direction of radio producer and journalist Daniel Alarcón of NPR’s Radio Ambulante, the roughly 30-minute “Gray Area” episodes cover the trials of aging in place; how the arts can help people with dementia; the financial, physical and mental strains of caregiving for a loved one and reentry after prison as an older person in the New York City area. Listeners can come away thinking about aging in a different way, or for some — start thinking about aging at all.

The 'Gray Area' Podcast Stories

“[Alarcón] envisioned telling stories about a segment of our population that can often go ignored in the media, and that resonated with me because I think that is why we become journalists — because we want to raise the profile of people who may not always be the first place that reporters go,” says Amara Omeokwe, a “Gray Area” producer.

Omeokwe, who has an interest in business and economic reporting, knew she wanted to produce an episode on a financial topic. As she researched, caregiving stood out as an obvious choice.

Geoffrey and Martha Levy

In her episode “The Caregiving Conundrum,” Omeokwe features Geoffrey and Martha Levy — a Long Island couple in their early 60s struggling with the financial challenges of caregiving. Martha has multiple sclerosis and Geoffrey has been her caregiver since 1988. Things became progressively harder after Geoffrey was laid off from his job repairing cameras. His physical disabilities post-colon surgery, in combination with his demanding caregiving duties, have made it nearly impossible for him to find work, so he collects disability along with Martha.

The couple barely scrapes by every month. The stress is in their voices. Beyond their avalanche of bills, property taxes in New York are high, and many of Martha’s medical supplies are not covered by Medicare or supplemental insurance. The Levys have nearly exhausted their retirement savings, and when an unexpected emergency like a broken furnace in the middle of a brutal New York winter comes up, Omeokwe discusses how the couple is left with a tough question: What’s it worth to be warm? The episode follows Martha and Geoffrey through this journey and contextualizes it through the lens of America’s caregiving crisis.

Paradigm Shifts

“Gray Area” asks listeners to think differently about aging issues. For Omeokwe, that meant raising awareness about the caregiving topics she covered in her episode — both from a broad, national policy perspective but also on a micro, personal level.

“It was something my siblings and I had never talked about or even thought about,” she says.

Omeokwe’s almost 70-year-old father landed in the hospital after a car accident, which got her thinking about her family's caregiving preparation — or lack thereof. “It was like, ‘What are we going to do if something happens?’ In order to avoid financial ruin, there are conversations that you should be having before your parents or your loved ones get to the point where they are in a devastated situation.”

Another “Gray Area” producer, Sarah Wyman, produced an episode called “Life Outside the Lines” with a deeply personal connection in mind. In 2017, her grandfather — a former trumpet player — passed away from complications of vascular dementia and her family grappled with how his life could have been improved with the help of music while he was still alive. Wyman asked herself: Can the arts change the trajectory of an incurable disease?

“I was trying to make something I would have wanted to hear while my family was dealing with my grandfather’s death,” she says. “That was a time when I felt like there weren’t a lot of resources to help us work through that. There were a lot of things I didn’t know how to navigate or feel about.”


Between the Black and White

The podcast’s first episode, “The Little Old Lady Stays Put,” produced by Jennifer Sigl, refers to the “gray area” as the place in between the black and white of aging. In the episode’s context, “gray area” means the middle ground between staying in your home (aging in place) and relocating to a nursing home. The episode's subject, Jackie Herships, talks about her goal of aging in community — not necessarily staying in your exact residence, but staying close to where you’ve developed a community. Aging in community might still require downsizing and moving, but this way someone could keep medical providers, friends and social communities.

This gray area is what each producer found in her individual story, thus the name and the heart of the project.

“There are no obvious choices. There are no obvious paths,” Wyman says. “Every direction is fraught with different kinds of complexities, and you have to make decisions that balance your own needs, wants and quality of life with what works for the people around you.”

José Saldana and his wife, Rosa

Each episode’s characters find themselves caught between two extremes. Alarcón describes it as “that uneasy space we can feel stuck in when it comes to the meaning and impact of growing old.”

For Martha and Geoffrey Levy, it's the choice between an uncomfortable winter and spending a lot of money they didn’t have. Wyman’s characters in the dementia and arts episode are on a progression between health and sickness. In Sigl’s, it’s the gray area of aging in community. And the fourth episode, "Getting Out Gray" produced by Steph Beckett, features José Saldana — occupying the space between being in prison for nearly four decades and adapting to a new, very different life as an older man.

“Gray Area” succeeds in taking great care with the stories it tells — winding big-picture ideas about aging in our society with the very difficult realities of the characters. Though “Gray Area” focuses on New York-area stories, there is a ubiquity that crosses regional lines.

The "Gray Area" podcast is available for listening on iTunes, SoundCloud and on the podcast's website here.

Grace Birnstengel
Grace Birnstengel was an editor, reporter and writer for Next Avenue. She focused on in-depth storytelling and the intersections of identity and aging. Read More
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