Old-timers, like myself, are often afraid of sinking into irrelevance; of being among family or younger friends and listened to with artificial tolerance, masking an invisible, hand-swatting dismissal.
We often feel we have to struggle to gain credibility among those with whom the American culture is now obsessed: the svelte, but anorexic celebrities, the sometimes steamy contestants on “Dancing with the Stars,” all of the Kim Kardashian look-alikes on the ever-increasing reality TV shows and the screaming pundits of the right and left on cable television.
In addition, my pre-nursing home generation feels more like an annoyance, a medical nuisance made to feel it is bringing the nation’s health care system to its knees. And when we’re “on the mend,” we are reduced to getting the daily dosages of our drugs right, remembering to take a shower, cracking an egg without breaking the yoke, not falling in the bath tub and being able to figure out the dollar amount of a state sales tax on any purchase.
Assumptions about cognitive skills so often rule our social interactions. And when negative assumptions reduce an elderly “victim” to the status of even mild senility, we become just another phlegm-throated senior citizen living among the walking dead.
Old age has its dark subtleties. And I count myself as one of those who, too often, explains away certain behavior because I think someone is just acting like an old person. They may very well have been curmudgeons or sociopaths their entire lives. Or they may well have always lost their keys or misplaced their clean underwear when they were teenagers.
On the other hand, I find myself waiting for the “other” old guy to lack an insight, to romanticize the past, to whistle his way through a sentence, to be stuck in an old story, to bring out an endless array of grandchildren photos or to complain about a bank teller, waiter, pedestrian, young driver or the music in a restaurant.
But there is a certain Olympian stance we old-timers often take in believing we have intentionally reached matchless levels of competence, wisdom and experience. However, we often deceive ourselves into believing that we have been predisposed to win the battles of our lives when, in fact, we just rode on the megabus of aging like everybody else.
And sometimes we fall into the default mode of thinking that we have arrived at old age by sheer stamina and innate competence. If we truly own up, we would have preferred to have been spared a crisis, an illness or a rejection. After all, what sane person wouldn’t want to have a conflict-free life?
And if we are misdiagnosed, do we rail against the health industry’s incompetence? Or do we pull back and balance our cynicism with remembering the number of times we were treated compassionately and professionally by ER staffs? Do we scapegoat the medical culture while masking our own fears of death? Do we complain about physicians because we mistakenly place them on a pedestal of error-less competence and then blame them for not reaching our own fear-driven ideal?
So, my friends, old age is a reservoir of competing issues. We fear invisibility and senility. We resent film-star glamor. We think the other old guy is really old. We complain about incompetence. And we are too often in denial about our fears of dying, while blaming the doctors for not trying hard enough to keep us alive. And life will still go on without us.