Thursday, 12 April 2012

Everything Old is New Again...

Betty White has been old my entire life. At least that's how it feels. Having recently celebrated her 90th birthday, she would have been at least in her sixties whenever I first saw her on television. And if I had to guess when that would have been, it was probably at my maternal grandmother's house. Like Betty, Grandma seemed like she was under a permanent contract with NBC, so I couldn't say if it was The Golden Girls or Empty Nest or even Mama's Family, but Betty was a funny older lady on Grandma's tv for as long as I can remember.

Grandma K. was also old my entire life. At least in my perception of her. But seemed to embrace age like it was a ball of fire or a ballgown made of knives. She replaced glasses with magnifying glasses and bought books in larger and larger print until she had to admit she could no longer to see to read. She cranked NBC louder and louder rendering any conversation with her impossible. She bought a three bedroom house in her 80's, determined to use it, but aches and pains kept her, far as I could tell, shuffling only from her bed to her chair and back again. She moved to be closer to us and I was able to visit her even more regularly than I had as a young kid. Being that she was my last surviving grandparent by quite a few years, I was determined to gain any life-changing insight I could on our visits. Squeeze all the wisdom I could out of her, as it were. But, as I say, she met the advancing years with a bottle of gin, a pack of smokes, and determination not to succumb to the stereotype of the sage senior, so prepared as I was for trite platitudes, she offered only one refrain on a constant basis.

Dream: Never get old, James. Never get old.

Goal: Unachievable. We all have to get old. But as my thirty will turn soon to eighty, I hope we regard our aged with a little more respect, a little less condescension.

Plan: Examine what exactly shifts in our perspective of oldsters, and why that happens.

It seems like we can't really handle the idea that someone we love is getting older, even when it's just a public figure. In fact, especially when it's a public figure. Betty White may be the exception but even she, getting up to accept an award last year to a standing ovation, joked “You didn't stand for me when I was forty!” But consider the public discomfort with the aging star. Alternately lauded and laughed at, we don't seem to know what to do with Bill Cosby, still touring stadiums and campaigning for education reform in his dotage, subject every week to an online death rumour, a cruel meme, a Twitter punchline. We can't stomach Joni Mitchell, in self-imposed exile after re-releases of her classic albums were halted by a disinterested record company. Even Frank Oz, pushing seventy, and the creator and muppetteer of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and others, proudly presented his script for the new Muppet movie a few years ago and was summarily rejected by every producer only to watch Jason Segel pitch his own script and direct his own film just months later (Oz refused to participate as a muppetteer/voice in the film and was roundly criticized for it). But what's our problem? Do we believe age has diminished not just the appearance, but the talent we once thought these people possessed? The ability?

Yes, we're surely a youth-obsessed culture, but is that the way to go in every respect? Wouldn't you rather have a doctor older than you? A boss at least ten years your senior? When you feel lost, alone, or scared, doesn't at least a part of you immediately yearn for Mom and Dad, and not Dave from the bar? And yet, speaking for myself, I'm still ill-at-ease around an old person, especially if I don't know them. I don't trust that the old man on the bus will get off at the right stop, or that the old lady in the store knows where to find her groceries. I'm worried that they smell, that they're sick, that a gentle breeze could topple and destroy them. Surely that's true of some seniors, but do we young'uns have such a great track record in those three arenas? Walk past any trendy club on a Friday night and notice your fair share of contemporaries that smell, that are getting sick, the are easily toppled by a slight breeze.

We seem instead, intent on bizarrely infantilizing an old person. Preferring to see them as cute instead of wise. Kitschy instead of stylish. Less than us and not more. Bringing it back to Betty, consider the cachet she trades on in recent appearances and roles. She's the horny old Grandmother who busts out references to Facebook and Justin Bieber and we laugh because “she doesn't know what she's saying! Adorable!” And though, at least culturally, this seems to be a gender-specific prejudice (consider daffy Cloris Leachman against Christopher Plummer or Max Von Sydow), how many men in their 80's that live on your street get any respect and accolades, rather than distracted pats on the hand from a stressed-out caregiver?

Are we uncomfortable with old people because their lives are so foreign to our experience up until now, or because their current existence is our inevitability, god-willing? It would be nice not to get old, of course, but consider the alternative. Its time we considered what we really do by not meeting the gaze of the senior walking down the street. What we're really trying to avoid. What we're refusing to see. I can't visit Grandma K. anymore, as she kept her reign as last surviving grandparent for just a few years before joining the others in my childhood memories. I think of them all so often, and wonder if they're smiling down from somewhere, or if they simply don't exist anymore in any place. If the latter is true, even if it's not, I hope I respected them as they deserved while they were here. I hope I can see seniors not as just older people, but people people. Men and women that deserve our time if only because they've spent so much of their own. I hope I'm not too young to learn from them.


  1. BOOM. Great blog, friend.
    Now I'm all teary-eyed... I hope I give as much respect to all elders, as I do my own grandparents.

  2. Love this one, James. I love it. Aunty Cicely called me last night to ask if you really are "Big City James". I'm so proud of you.
    I am counting on you to take care of me if my old age now!!
    Lots and lots of love - and looking forward to seeing you on Wednesday.
    Your proud Aunt Judith.