The Insults of Aging: Why Young People Get it Wrong

Incredible things are heard when nobody thinks you’re listening. Recently, in downtown San Francisco, I was walking behind a 20-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 60, I completed my first triathlon. At 63, I finished my 7th book. At 64, 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.

Stan Goldberg

More Articles Written by Stan

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. For over 25 years he taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the area of information processing, loss, and change. Stan has published seven books, written numerous articles and delivered over 100 lectures and workshops throughout the United States, Latin America and Asia. He is currently working on a novel and a book on loss. He also consults on issues of personal, institutional, and corporate change. He has served as an expert legal witness in high-profile court cases and is a consulting editor for Oxford University Press. Stan leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and traumatically changed. He serves at the bedside hospice volunteer in San Francisco for Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. and is a featured columnist in the Hospice Volunteers of America quarterly magazine. His published magazine articles, essays, poems, and plays have received numerous national and international writing awards. Written with humor and sensitivity, they have appeared in magazines ranging from Psychology Today to Horse and Rider. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life http://lessonsfortheliving.blogspot.com. It’s a memoir of his six years as a bedside hospice volunteer; an experience that taught him to accept his cancer and live fully, no matter how long that might be. He can be contacted at stan@stangoldbergwriter.com. Numerous downloadable articles appear on his website www.stangoldbergwriter.com

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