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.
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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
Lauren Kessler is the author of My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence