Incredible things are heard when nobody thinks you’re listening. Recently in downtown San Francisco I was walking behind a twenty-something–year-old couple. They were forced to reduce their fast pace as they approached an elderly man slowly walking in the same direction. Unable to go around him because foot traffic was heavy, they exchanged annoyed expressions, then imitated the elder gentleman’s halting movements.

 

Eventually, he turned off on a side street and they resumed their pace. The young man turned to his girlfriend and said, “When I get that old shoot me.” If he had asked me for help, I would have been delighted to give it—even early.

Unfortunately, aging is viewed by many younger people with the same anathema as a strange uncle who comes uninvited to a family gathering. Despite everyone’s assurance that nobody has told Uncle Ralph about the event, there he is in all his glory, wearing a plaid mothball smelling jacket, a striped shirt, and lime green pants. The few strands of remaining hair are carefully combed across his bald head. He sits in the middle of the room waiting for a simple hello, but receives the same amount of attention given to an unappetizing bowl of bean dip.

Why are younger people so reluctant to understand the process of aging? There’s an old saying that we fear most that which we will become. Everyone’s own Uncle Ralph is looming there, peaking over the approaching horizon. Those of us who have faced east and welcomed the sun, have come to understand that aging, while presenting challenges, is neither the bogeyman nor the doddering old fool often portrayed in hip Hollywood films. The Tibetans have a saying, “to get over your fears, bring closer to you that which frightens you the most.” Aging for many younger people falls into that category. And because it’s not understood, it often is ignored, ridiculed, and in the most egregious of cases, becomes the basis of inadvertent humiliation.

Our slower processing of information is often misinterpreted as a sign that our minds are turning to mush. Our more gentle physical pace is taken as an indication that our bodies are disintegrating. At sixty I completed my first triathlon. At sixty-three I finished my 7th book. At sixty-four I, along with nine “older” friends, hiked for seven days in the high Sierras. Typical activities for someone my age? Maybe not. But I’m sure most people my age can substitute experiences and abilities many of our younger friends might find unexpected.

Most of us have experienced an incident that makes us wonder how some younger people can get it so wrong. Based on conversations I’ve had with fellow “old folks,” I’ve compiled the top 10 age-based insults. If you’ve one of us and have already asked Uncle Ralph to stay, maybe even engaged him in a serious conversation, there’s little new here. But you might want to pass this article on to people who question your judgment, sanity, or value. If Uncle Ralph is knocking on the door, take heart, keep reading and you’ll learn that he’s not as frightening as you think. If you’re someone who drives behind us and honks because we drive at the speed limit or slightly below, definitely read on. And if you’re an adult child with at least one living parent, read this daily.

TOP TEN INSULTS FOR “OLD FOLKS

1. They are uninformed. Not knowing the names of the latest Oscar nominees doesn’t mean we’re uninformed. Uninformed is not understanding why Korea was partitioned. Though we forget names, we remember the complexities of living those who are younger are still struggling to learn.

2.Once the body goes, the mind follows. Moving slowly doesn’t mean we’ve lost our marbles. Check out any book written by Stephen Hawkins.

3. They’ve lost the capacity to be intimate. Our capacity to love is not diminished by age, it just takes on different forms.

4. They’re going deaf, so speak loudly and slowly. We may not hear well, but we know how to listen and when to remain silent.

5. They’re always cranky. We do get cranky. Don’t take it personally—physical pain and understanding about the inevitability of aging has that effect.

6. The elderly need guidance. Don’t treat us as children, no matter how much are bodies are failing or how long it takes to process information. We may not think as quickly as we once did, but the quality of our deliberations and depth of our insights are undiminished.

7. They glory in their dependency. We don’t become dependent to make your life miserable. We are more reluctant to ask for help than people are willing to give it.

8. They can’t make decisions on their own. We’ve made important decisions throughout our lives. Even some—believe it or not—that had a very positive effect on the lives of others. Allow us the dignity of continuing to do it, at least for ourselves.

9. Their knowledge is outdated. In this fast-paced digital, cyber-connected, social-mediatized world, you may believe that our knowledge is irrelevant. But our wisdom, just as it has been since the beginning of time, isn’t. It comes from living.

10. They behave strangely. Our attitudes and behaviors are the products of our history. So when we say or do something you don’t understand, don’t dismiss it out of hand, cut us some slack. After all dudes, WE’RE OLD.

copyright 2010 Stan Goldberg, stangoldbergwriter.com

This article can be reproduced and distributed without charge for any non-commercial project if the source is provided.

28 Responses

  1. Jim

    Unfortunately, not understanding elders is part of the aging process. I have a feeling many of the seniors of today were not so different from that young couple when they were that age.

    It’s important for young people to have exposure to seniors and more than just on Thanksgiving and Christmas. My grandparents died when I was very young, but I was able to experience the aging process through my beloved great aunt and uncle. They were the model of senior mobility and cognitive sharpness, though my great aunt eventually needed a scooter. They have shaped my view of who seniors are and of what they are capable.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Jim,

      You’re absolutely right about the inability we seniors expressed when we were young and snickered about our elders. Ahhhh, if only I knew then what I know now!

      Stan

      Reply
    • Jackie

      Partly because of my parents influence and partly because of growing up close to my grandparents, I loved old people all my life. They are wise, cantankerous, funny, kind, and loving. The way many young ppl feel and act towards old people can be changed. It starts at home.

      Reply
      • Stan Goldberg

        Hi Jackie,

        I agree. Hopefully young people will start looking at us “old folks” with a little understanding that we’ve already forgotten more than they currently know.

  2. Janice Arnold

    This is an excellent article. It’s so easy for people to make assumptions about elders… They are the wise ones if we will take the time to simply listen. Thank you Stan for bringing these perspectives forward.

    Reply
  3. Flora

    …all I can say about getting older, Stan, is this: “The older the violin, the sweeter the music!! I am enjoying my life more now than I ever have in the past.

    Reply
    • Jim

      Just last week I was talking with a client who is turning 77 this year. The subject of aging came up, and I said, “I’m 35 now, and when I look back on my life, I think, ‘Thank God I’m not 23 anymore.’ Do you sometimes look back and think, ‘Thank God I’m not 50 anymore’?”

      And she said yes.

      Isn’t that such a sign of encouragement for those of us in the younger generation?

      Reply
      • Stan Goldberg

        Hi Jim,

        But the answer will change depending upon when you pose the question. Yesterday I would agree with your client. Today, well…….

        Take Care,
        Stan

  4. Saskia

    Hi Stan,

    I work with people in hospice and who have long-term disabilities or conditions. I’ve been shocked by the condescencion to seniors. I regularly have shop assistants turn to me to explain things when I’m clearly not the client. One even lectured me about the kind of care a client needed–someone to dress her. My client dressed herself every day, and I’m trained to encourage all independence.

    The most shocking was a doctor calling me into his office alone to discuss the client’s meds! I told him I couldn’t because it would be illegal for me to breach her privacy.

    Makes me crazy.

    I suggest seniors who can’t race in front of impatient young people buy a T-shirt I saw once. It said, “I’m retired, go around me.” 😉

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Saskia,

      Insightful comments and unfortunately, an all-too familiar story. I think you’re too kind with what you’d put on a T-shirt. My slogan would by X-rated.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  5. Grace Doherty

    Parents/Adults are the first teachers of our children, who then grow into parents/adults. This is how they learn to treat others. From the very beginning, my children spent quality time with their grandparents as well as other “chronologically gifted” relatives. They were taught proper manners & respect and to treat others as they would like to be treated, regardless of age. I see how they interact with people and I am proud of the young adults and women they have become.

    It is our responsibility to raise good people. Too soon we become those “old people”.

    Grace

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Grace,

      I couldn’t agree with you more. When I see a younger person being uncaring to someone who is getting older (e.g.,someone my age), I doubt if their unskillful way of interacting is limited only to older people.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  6. Kimilena

    I was in the supermarket, unable to get past an elderly man walking very slowly along the aisle. His daughter was with him and she turned and apologised to me for the slowness of pace.
    I replied “I wish my Nan was still here so I could walk slowly along the aisle with her”.
    Life’s not just about speed, it’s also about people and respecting where they are at in their stage of life.

    Reply
  7. susan troccolo

    Hi Stan, On point number 2., did you mean to say Stephen Hawking? If you did, then isn’t that funny and delightful? I’m not being facetious. We’re all going down this aging road, even you brilliant guys…and to the extent we don’t take ourselves too seriously, wow, we’re lucky.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Susan,

      Yes I did and thanks for the correction. As I age, it’s getting harder for my mind to coordinate my fingers and intensions. And I agree–taking oneself too seriously isn’t helpful

      take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  8. Luigi D'Angola

    I bumped into your blog during a research on the value of time at different ages. I am 75 and one year could be 100% of the rest of my life. A young person cannot understand why I am impatient when people waste my time. One year is nothing for them. I will spend some of my 100% to go through your blog. I wish I had known about it during the last trying years.

    Thank you,

    Luigi

    Reply
  9. Alexandra

    I’m just beginning to get the “old” label. I’m in my 40s and finding it hard to process this as I really don’t think I’m old. I’m old-er and don’t fear reaching my golden years, but I enjoy some of the same things I did in my 20s and 30s. I started a family late in my 30s, so honestly I do not feel or look my age. I’m looking forward to more knowledge and wisdom, some of which I could’ve used in the past and most likely now. There’s a certain push/pull effect because I miss youthful skin and less wrinkled eyebrows, yet revel in the fact that my wisdom is increasing daily. Perhaps youth is society’s definition of beauty. Of course, they have it all wrong. I can remember making comments when I was younger about seniors being rude, but never remember directly insulting someone directly about their age or being “old.” In this new era of the internet, the “Millennials” who were just crawling or in diapers when it was accessible to the masses, have claimed cyberspace as their own, filling it with their pseudo-intelligence and opinions, followed blindly by their 100K+ followers on Twitter, as if it’s of some importance to the world. Perhaps to them, but who are they? Do people know them out in public? I doubt it. Most think nothing of striking back in debates with ageism, especially if they have no valid argument. This leads me to believe they weren’t properly trained at home, and of course, that I’m getting old-er. It all starts at home, but I’m afraid in the technological era we live in now, it’s too easy to insult a stranger on the other side of the keyboard. Thanks for this article. I was feeling a bit insulted, until I stumbled upon your blog. 🙂

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Alexandra,

      I’m glad you found the article helpful. I think often those of us who begin thinking about ourselves as “old” (like me) forget how we viewed our parents when we became adults and how they viewed us as the “next generation.” I know my parents couldn’t understand my values, and I in turn couldn’t understand theirs.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  10. brian

    Old people are a waste of oxygen and that includes my grandparents.
    it’s high time we culled humans at 70 years old

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Either your attempt at humor fell short or you are looking at aging from the viewpoint of someone who doesn’t understand it. As someone who is 70 and I’m told still contributes to the lives of thousands, I’m not ready to give up my oxygen. Possibly your view of aging has something to do with your relationship with your grandparents.

      Reply
  11. brian

    Once a person needs regular medical help to live, then that life should be ended.
    Rich people already live much longer

    Reply
  12. Luigi D'Angola

    I am proudly old. When I realized that I was feeling old, I decided that I needed a challenge. I discovered an opportunity to start a business in high tech. People do not question the validity of my proposal. They ask why I am doing that at my age. My answer is that I have to do soon otherwise I will be too old to do it.

    Reply

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About The Author

I am an author of eight books in four languages. LESSONS FOR THE LIVING: STORIES OF FORGIVENESS, GRATITUDE AND COURAGE AT THE END OF LIFE is my memoir of being a bedside hospice volunteer for six years while battling prostate cancer. My next book, LEANING INTO SHARP POINTS: PRACTICAL GUIDANCE AND NURTURING SUPPORT FOR CAREGIVERS will be published in March, 2012 by New World Library and focus on caregiving for loved ones who have a progressive or terminal illness.