I hate it. I hate the title of this post: The Language of Growing Old in America.
It’s patently insulting to anyone over 50. It may be insulting to anyone over 40, but my memories of 40 are fond ones, so I submit that those who are 40 -50 still don’t think of themselves as old, and the country doesn’t either.
I am on the near side of what our society labels as old. I passed my 60th birthday some years ago and I admit that for a short bit of time it had me adopting the societal norm – that of thinking I’m old and unable to be a contributing and active member of society.
After all, my knees hurt, I need reading glasses, I turn the TV up louder than I used to, I hesitate to leave the house if it’s windy or cold, and I could go on and on, enumerating so many ways I’ve allowed the language of old age to invade my life.
But, if YOU were to point out that I’m old, that the number on every form I need to fill out of late (for healthcare or anything else) is higher than your number, is so much higher than your number, and therefore, by all that’s known and correct, it makes me a senior citizen, and “old person”, I would… maybe slap you. If I couldn’t slap you, I’d give you my “you take that back!” look.
What is the language, then, of getting old in America?
It’s this – that at a certain age your friends and family begin to treat you differently. They might not say it out loud, but they think you’re close to your expiration date. Like frozen fish that has been in the freezer too long. It’s old. It’s shrunken. If you thaw it out, it smells… like old fish that needs chucking.
The word ‘old’ as become an insult, rather than something to be respected, as it once was. It’s so insulting, I would like it removed from the lexicon, thank you very much.
Our grandparents were accepting of the idea of old. They worked hard for fifty years and settled into old. They wore old like a favorite cardigan, a bit stretched out, faded from many days in the sun, and missing most of its buttons. But, it was still warm. It was soft and comfortable. It lounged without a care across the arm of a ladder-backed dining room chair, waiting for someone to slip it over bony shoulders as they moved to a rocker-recliner to read the paper. Oh yes, reading the paper, an old item from the long ago 20th century, has become an indicator of old.
Our grandparents were happy with old. They clung to their homes, as if the building they lived in was all that was left of boisterous laughter, the smell of a Sunday roast, where piercing screams from the second floor let you know the children were racing about without a care in the world. They clung to history and heritage, and told stories about hard times and good times and shared memories of the ‘old’ country.
Our grandparents slipped into old age with a dignity we do not understand, today. Most of us, anyway. They didn’t all live long enough to embrace numbers above 50 or 60. Those who did knew they deserved to be cherished and fussed over. And, they put their skinny bottoms in their lumpy old recliners, in front of the TV news, as they accepted the fussing, letting their children and grandchildren bring them food on trays, because being old meant they’d lived long enough to eat in the living room. It meant they had earned respect, they were meant to be revered.
But in the passing of time, something got lost. Being “old” became sad.
Old people were someone’s responsibility. They were Grandma and Grandpa, without names – if the great grandchildren had asked, “What’s Grandpa’s name?” who would have answered? Who knew? “Grandpa,” the adults would have said. “Grandpa…<Jones, or Smith, or DiBennedetto>.”
“No, what’s Grandpa’s real name? Like, Paul, my name is Paul. What is Grandpa’s name?”
And the adults would have scrambled to find someone who knew.
Is that the language of getting old in America?
It has been. It happens still, all around us.
Joan Lunden would have us believe there are happy homes for our aging parents. She smiles and talks about places where our aging parents can live fulfilling lives. Her commercial is full of light and laughter and old people who likely made a few bucks to say the places they stay are wonderful.
Maybe they are wonderful. I don’t know.
I know this. 30-40 years ago I would have been one of those old people. I shudder to imagine it.
Because today, in this century, at my age, I’m not old. Not that old. Just old enough to be insulted at the word attached to my age. Old enough to remember how poorly we have treated our aging population. Old enough to know I am not going to be old. Not the old that society wants me to be.
I will not “go gently into that good night.”
I will rage against the night.
I will live in a home full of light and love and laughter and the smell of cookies, made for the grandchildren – and the dogs. My home. Where family is welcome to visit. As long as they understand, the dogs are family, too.
I will keep my brain and my body sharp.
And my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will act as if it’s only natural.
I, and many like me, are changing the language of growing old in America.
It’s a language full of what we’re doing (not what we’ve done); what we’re reading and studying and the businesses we’re starting. It’ the language of hope and expectation. It’s the language of youth.
We are growing young. Come join us. It’s fun and exciting!