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Old and In the Way

Codger, fogy, fossil. Geezer, duffer, dinosaur. Hag, nag, bag, coot, crone. Senile citizen. Our language is decidedly unkind to older people.

The elderly are feeble, frail and forgetful, crabby, creaky, constipated and curmudgeonly. These are the stereotypes, and they are not only insulting, they are largely inaccurate. The vast majority of older people live healthy, productive and independent lives. The active, alert, involved older person is the rule, not the exception. Not only that, but there are lots of these folks. At the turn of the 20th century, one in 16 Americans was 60 or older. At the turn of the 21st, it was one in six. Soon, it will be one in four. Maybe it's time — past time — to rethink how we talk about older people.

This is not going to be a rant about inappropriate language. The issue is not the words themselves, it's the attitude behind them, and the behavior that follows them. The fact is, language shapes how we think and how we act. So all these "over the hill," "past your prime," "Geritol generation" put downs are more than sticks-and-stones. These insults underlie our deep fears about aging (and our culture's obsession with youth).

Are there really cultures that listen to, even revere, their elders? I know I've read about them — American Indians, Hindus, the Chinese — but they seem impossibly remote, almost mythological. The elderly sage, the wise woman, the venerated patriarchs and matriarchs. Take a look around. Where are they?

What I see when I look around is old people living solitary, silent lives; old people sequestered in old people communities — "active" for the healthy, "assisted" for the not; old people made to feel as if they need to apologize for being old, for clogging up the works, for showing us the future we don't want to see.

Nanny at Ninety: my grandma on her birthday.

Presumably we all have a soft spot in our hearts for our old people — grandma and grandpa, great aunt Tillie, old cousin Bill — but we lose patience with everyone else's. The grandma at the grocery store. She's looking through her cavernous handbag for coupons. She's taking forever to count out the change from her purse. She's holding up the line. Come on. The geezer in the car, the one whose gray head you can barely see above the top of the driver's seat. He's driving 22 in a 35 mph zone. He's actually making a full stop at the stop sign and looking both ways before proceeding. Get off the road.

And maybe even, sometimes, we lose it with our own kin. Grandpa (Dad) pulls out the old photo album. Again. He launches into the story about... fill in the blank. Again. We roll our eyes and find the first excuse to leave the room.

Old and in the way.

"Old and in the Way" was a music group Jerry Garcia formed in the mid-1970s (with David Grisman and the amazing Vassar Clemens.) I know this not from reading the Wikipedia entry but because I am old enough to actually know it. I heard the group in Berkeley. I got there early and was hanging out in the alley behind the club when Garcia arrived. I held open the back door for him (a story I will surely bore my own children and, if I'm lucky, grandchildren, with for years to come). That was, gulp, 30 years ago.

Just as my young self from those days — car-less, kid-less, 401K-less, a joker, a smoker, a midnight toker — could not imagine my middle-aged self today, so too can I not imagine my elderly self in decades to come. Or maybe I should say, the elderly self that comes to mind is not one I care to imagine: the little old lady in a mint green polyester pants suit gripping the steering wheel of a big Buick. The little old lady sitting on a vinyl couch in the TV room of an assisted living facility talking to other little old ladies about blood pressure medicine. Or about how she once held open the door for Jerry Garcia. No thanks.

I want my head full of other images, images of vibrant, engaged older people, funny, feisty, perceptive, talented, passionate, compassionate older people. Older people who not only have experience but still seek it. I want to be that kind of older person. Why is that so hard to imagine? Why do we have to think of aging as a long list of things we can't do rather than a long list of things we can?

I think this is one we can fix, or start to fix. I think we have to.

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Lauren Kessler is the author of five works of narrative nonfiction, including the Washington Post bestseller Clever Girl and the Los Angeles Times bestseller The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.

÷ ÷ ÷

Lauren Kessler is the author of five narrative nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.

Books mentioned in this post

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6 Responses to "Old and In the Way"

    David R. Newman July 11th, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    Yep, by cracky. you younguns are onto sumpin here.

    perry July 11th, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    ooooh, i love it when you write strings of adjectives, streams of consciousness, freight train-freight trains of the mind.

    Thank you for shining your light on our precious elders.

    perry July 11th, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    oops, make that strings of nouns

    Erika Holderith July 11th, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    If a guy rode by on a motorcycle with no brakes while you were holding the door for Jerry, that was my brother.

    I have a couple of comments. I tend to believe that there is a cultural bias regarding the elderly. I have taken my octogenerian mother to UCLA to see a neurologist of of Korean descent. He is respectful and patient, giving us his full attention. This is not the norm with our experiences with the medical profession.

    Our experience with Asian doctors is three who shared these positive traits and one who was horrible. Was almost punishing in her attitude. But she is history, so no more about her.

    Actually my parents GP is Hungarian and has a lovely attitude, gives them hugs and cares about them. A few weeks ago we were leaving her office and my folks were confused about a physical therapy order the doctor had written. So we stopped her assistant, a nurse's aide, and asked for clarification. We were standing in the hall and she was showing a young man to a examination room.

    It took a couple of minutes of her time. As we were walking away I heard her profusely apologizing to the young man. It was as though she found my parents to be a source of embarassement. My response was to feel indignation and anger, though I did not act on it.

    Later, though, I spent some time grinding on the experience, trying to fathom why she had no respect for my parents and trying unsuccessfully to come up with something that I could say to her about it.

    A couple of months earlier another nurse aide assitant type slammed the door on her way out after showing impatience because my mother could not remember that the reason we were there to see the neurologist (not the one at UCLA) was for medicine to slow the decline of her memory.

    So far I have not done anything confrontational -not my style - but I wonder how to broach the topic to these aides or to the doctors.

    tawny madison July 11th, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    I lived in Japan in the home of a three-generation family. Though she spent a lof of time nodding off, the grandmother was a revered and valued family member.

    Yes it is different here. My experience in Japan was thirty years ago and I wonder if their pressurized society still preserves a honored place for the elderly.

    brett July 13th, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    We absolutely need to change the way we think about our "honored citizens," as the Portland transit discount policy calls them. The best way to do that is to show younger readers some of the experience of growing old in our society, and your true storytelling, Lauren, will help give thousands of readers some of that perspective. Showing how they live by making real characters come alive and telling their stories will change minds far more effectively than any hectoring. Congrats to you for taking on such a physically and emotionally challenging book that so needed to written, and for doing it so brilliantly.

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