Overheard from a healthy 83-year old man:
“I am a completely illiterate computer person, not techno savvy at all, I have no idea how to transfer photos from my cameras to the computer, so I will have to wait till a little kid comes over and does it for me.”
He laughed with a sense of satisfaction, probably thinking he was being “cute”. (Old people seem to think it’s “cute” when they feign incompetence, or do or say inappropriate or silly things because it’s a culturally expected behavior for “old” people.) The most egregious propagators of the myth of old age incompetence are old people who malign themselves with disparaging names such as “Old Geezers” or “Old Farts” and think it’s funny to tell each other demeaning “old people jokes”.
Too many old people buy into the myth that they can’t or are not supposed to be able to learn new or “complicated” things. As toddlers, kids learn that “fact” about old people when parents read stories to them about Grandpa who doesn’t do much except sit in an easy chair with the grandkids on his knees and Grandma is portrayed as a shapeless blob who bakes cookies and babysits.
Propagation and promotion of the “old age incompetence” myth never stops. You may have seen the TV commercial in which grandkids kids arrive at the grandparents home for a visit. Instead of a hug for the kids, Grandma (or was it Grandpa?) shoves a tangle of wires and a techie gadget at the kids and tells them to fix it.
TV commercials, especially for medications and insurance products typically show older men and/or women tending flowers in the garden or looking sad, inept, and needing a care taker. That’s supposed to be how older people see themselves, and therefore, identify with the message. Such messaging promotes a dependent stereotype of old people. Yes, many older people need and use advertised “senior” products and services. How about developing messaging that shows an accomplished older person in a productive position (73 year old Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey comes to mind.) It would send an entirely different message to “old” people.
The myth continues in other ways. For example, obnoxious “you are over the hill” greeting cards that “old” people send to each other at age 50 if not sooner. Typically, such cards focus on health conditions “old people” are supposed to suffer.
Here we are in 2018 and we still believe that as aging advances, “old age decline” is inevitable and that it’s appropriate to treat old people as if advancing age automatically rots the brain.
Origin of The Myth of Old Age Incompetence
When did the myth of elder incompetence start and why does actual incompetence persist? It pretty much started with institutionalizing retirement via the Social Security Act in the 1930s. Retirement legitimized “old age incompetence” over the years through gradual development of a well defined leisure-oriented senior mindset and lifestyle. It legitimized the mantra “I worked all my life and deserve my retirement” as well as the idea that “it’s time for the younger generation to take care of me and I don’t have to learn or know what kids know so I’ll go play golf or Bingo and just enjoy myself”. Never mind that adoption of such a mindset aids and abets decline.
The reality is that the brain and body need rigorous, constant challenge to remain viable and vital. That’s a given regardless of age so it is not unrealistic or unfair to say that traditional, leisure oriented retirement is probably the worst thing that has happened to healthy older people. I realize how incendiary that statement is, but it’s true.
Leisure oriented retirement has been great for businesses that provide the needs and wants of retirees — everything from medicine to housing to recreation. Propagating the myth of old age incompetence has paid off for enterprising entrepreneurs and multinational corporations alike.
The moneyed pharmaceutical industry has convinced midlife people and medical practitioners alike that aches, pains and other assorted annoyances can be fixed with a pill. Never mind that improved diet would probably be a better solution than pills that have potentially harmful side effects, but paying attention to diet isn’t a significant part of the “group think” health care dialogue that most people have been conditioned to accept.
Since catering to old age decline is such a huge part of the economy, there will be no call for change from financial winners in the old age industries. As a matter of fact, we can look to them to continue propagation and support of the myth about the incompetence of old people.
The takeaway is this: If you are at midlife, approaching, or in early retirement; if you don’t want to end up a traditional, dependent little old man or woman, then disengage from traditional group think that subliminally is assuring you that as you continue to age “old age decline” is inevitable. You have more control over how you age than you may think.
What you allow to go on in your head relating to the “proper” way to enjoy your retirement, as well as the cultural norms you buy into and the lifestyle you choose to live, will determine how quickly decline takes place. Barring unavoidable health issues, claim and honor your individuality and your right to live how you want to live “out of the old age group” — with vibrant health and vitality as long as life lasts. Nothing is worse than becoming dependent when dependence could have been avoided by choosing to live a vigorous nontraditional lifestyle prior to, and into the retirement years.