Are Old People Their Own Worst Enemies?

Barbara Morris

Barbara Morris

A currently running TV commercial shows two teens arriving at their grandparents home. Instead of hugs for the kids, Grandma and Grandpa shove a handful of tech gadgets with dangling wires into the hands of the teens and greet them with, ” We are so happy to see you. None of this works.”

The commercial perpetuates the myth that old people are incapable of learning anything new.

I’m tired of old people portrayed as brain dead morons, not capable of much more than cutting flowers in the garden (in slow motion, of course) or drinking tea with the help of a caregiver, discussing funeral options. How about portraying them as competent problem solvers once in a while? How about showing them in positions of responsibility which would accurately represent many older people who are still productive?

Yes, some older people are mentally incompetent. That’s different issue.

The assumption that old people can’t learn what young people learn is a crock; the result of archaic social conditioning about old people as well as the beliefs of old people themselves that are false. For example:

1.Belief that decline is inevitable. Lingering outdated stereotypical ideas about the ability and value of old people are relentless. In addition to the TV commercial cited above, here’s another that perpetuates the incompetence notion: A commercial for a nutrition drink shows an older couple leaning on their golf clubs. The man says, “I’m terrible at golf”. The woman agrees he’s terrible and he declares he will continue to be terrible as long as he can. Wrong message! He should be proclaiming that he can get better at golf because he is capable and will keep trying. The acceptance of assumed decline and incompetence of old people makes me crazy. It’s not cute! Enough already!

2. Belief that advanced age and incompetence are synonymous is often perpetrated by old people themselves. How often have we heard an older person say, when faced with a new learning challenge, “At my age I’m too old to learn that”. It’s a culturally sanctioned response that should have been discredited long ago. To add to the problem, our lazy human nature prefers leisure over effort and convinces us, that because of our age, it’s okay to vegetate and allow our brains to turn to mush. Guess what: Our lazy human nature is not our friend. It works tirelessly to get us to the finish line sooner than we want to get there. Rein it in and replace it with effort! Don’t say “I can’t”. It’s just as easy to say “I’ll try”.

Competent old people often don’t realize that they are responsible for much of the condescension and disrespect with which they are treated because they think it’s okay to denigrate themselves because of their age. I watched a UTube video made by a couple who proudly call themselves “geezers”. The content was interesting and encouraging but why do old people think they need to disrespect themselves by using cutsey or disdainful names to describe themselves?

I realize that in our culture everything and everybody gets categorized: millennials, genXers , boomers, greatest generation, etc. Being classified may not bother younger people but when retired people think it’s okay to demean themselves with unflattering names that suggest they are less competent than they are, that smacks of self loathing.

Think about how you project yourself to others. What they see and hear from you determines how they treat and interact with you which in turn affects how you value yourself. If you think it’s cute to behave like a mindless teenager or demean yourself with unattractive names, you are sending a message that it’s okay to assume you are not fully competent. Value who you are and your stage of life. Be assertive and proud of who you are, apart from your chronological age, which is just a meaningless number unless you attach significance to it. Appreciate yourself and dare to be the most competent growth oriented person you can be, regardless of, or in spite of your chronological age. It’s beyond liberating.


  1. Thanks, Eileen. I appreciate your feedback. I’ll continue to try to slay old age dragons. 🙂

  2. I love these reminders, Barbara. Though I agree entirely and try to avoid making demeaning comments about myself or others, it’s easy to slip because it’s so accepted in our culture.

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