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American Pie: What's It Like Being Old Grandpa?

"The elderly are probably less revered in the USA than anywhere else on earth,'' declares columnist John Merchant.

The elderly are probably less revered in the USA than anywhere else on earth. We’re looked upon as decrepit bumblers who forgot how to drive cars and who can never remember where we left our glasses. If we’re seen in the gym, it’s automatically assumed we’re there for therapy after a fall or some such accident.

We’re regarded as a disaster waiting to happen, and our younger family members can’t wait to warehouse us in a care facility. Continued care or assisted living it’s called, otherwise known as the slippery slope to oblivion. Some of the facilities are so nice you almost can’t wait to move in; that is if you believe the brochures and TV commercials.

In the USA, a soon to be majority, the over 65’s, will be able to out-spend, out-vote, out protest and out-gripe any other age group. And if that news isn’t bad enough for the jünglings, how about the fact that we’re getting younger by the year? It’s now well established that today’s 70 is yesterday’s 60, and we didn’t have to pay a penny for that.

But returning to the topic of my title, what is being old like through the eyes of young person? What they see is someone whose gait is a little wobbly, sometimes accompanied by a limp, and often a stooped posture. They see gray hair or a balding pate. They see us struggling to get out of an easy chair as if gravity were doubled there.

Our shapes are not like theirs and never will be, however hard we work out and watch our diet. Our skin has lost its elasticity, so if we lose weight the wrinkles are multiplied. We are seen to peer long and hard at the goods on supermarket shelves as though trying to see into the future. We sleep a lot and claim not to.

But in some ways we’re like icebergs, and what our nubile and buff critics don’t see is the greater part that is under the water. They don’t see years of accumulated wisdom, much of it gained by making mistakes – an invaluable store of on the job learning that we’d be glad to pass along if they would be willing to listen.

They also don’t see our pain. The muscles that never seem to be supple despite exercise: the knee and hip joints that lost their cushion and lubrication: the spinal columns that are crumbling due to calcium depletion and abuse over the years. They see, but don’t understand that our skin is like tissue paper; easily torn and bruised.

Our state of mind also is hidden from the young. Somehow our fuses have shortened, making us quick to anger. Feelings of apprehension and anxiety, that used to occur periodically for good reason, now are our constant and irrational companions. We worry about our future prospects: how long will we live: how will we die: where will we die, and will we die alone?

We constantly monitor our memory. Are we becoming more forgetful, and if so, is it the onset of the dreaded dementia or just preoccupation? Our lives may seem empty to our young observers, but in truth we have plenty to be preoccupied about – will our savings last; will they outlast us? How will our surviving spouses cope?

I have long believed that the ideal way to live out one’s life in a comforting, nurturing and protected environment is the Long House; impractical though that may be in the modern world. But the proximity and familiarity of family and neighbors is a valuable social advantage that we have discarded.

The elderly are cared for without being regarded as a burden on the young. The youngsters always have the elderly to watch over them, and to teach, discipline and nurture them so that parents can go about their occupations and chores with an easy mind. Most of all, with such intense and enforced interaction, what it’s like to be old is less of a mystery.

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