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About five years ago, I was faced with a sad dilemma -- my mother passed away, leaving my elderly father to fend for himself. My parents had enjoyed 50 wonderful years as man and wife. They were like peanut butter and jelly, rum and coke, bread and butter. They just seemed right together.

How would my dad go on alone? He began to map out a new daily schedule for himself, which he still follows. We all know where we can find him in the morning, walking at the mall. He is the most well-read senior on this earth -- he reads five newspapers daily and any magazine he can get his hands on.

He also enters every contest he finds and usually wins. While my mother was alive, he enjoyed those things, but seldom had enough free time to do them. My mother was his queen, and her desires came first. She was the daily social director. But all of a sudden, he was alone. We knew he loved to kibitz with people, and although he didn't cook much, he could take care of his other needs. We introduced him to the Jewish Center, where he still has his midday meal. At first, eating lunch there served as a social outlet and nutritional way to fill his needs. My dad is one of the lucky ones -- he can still drive, take care of himself and has his health.

In this decade, the average age of seniors will reach into the 80s. Medical advances keep our seniors living longer. Providing for their needs, emotional and physical, is a booming industry.

Many seniors spend their later years as widowers and widows. Unless they have a support system of family and friends, the loneliness often shortens their lives. Older people can fall into bouts of depression. But if they can be placed in a productive, enriched lifestyle, they can still feel that life is worth living. And that means more than simply taking up a hobby or joining a club.

Many seniors can make contributions to a company wise enough to hire them. Did you know that seniors actually need less sleep than younger people? They can fill vital positions in companies, and can share a lifetime's worth of wisdom that cannot be taught in books.

In other countries, people are revered and taken into the family when they become old. They are admired for their wisdom.

In America we view this "problem" very differently. We need to remember this special group of people as they age and how they sacrificed for us as we were growing up. We need to take better care of looking after them, making sure they lead enriching lives as they age.

We, too, may be lucky someday to reach senior status. Medical advances make it ever more likely that many of us eventually will learn how lonely it can be to be left alone. The question now is: How will we as a society handle this population?

Gerontologists are among the most needed medical specialties today. Buffalo has only a handful of such specialists. I guess it all depends on what our population values the most. Seniors, unfortunately, are not valued the way they ought to be.

Next time you are out at a store, take a few moments to chat with a senior. I work with them in my field almost every day, and find they have some of the most fascinating stories to share. Their memories, in some cases, are all that give them pleasure, and you can turn their day around just by lending an ear for a few moments.

JUDITH WHITEHEAD works in the medical field and lives in East Amherst.