The Tyranny of Traditional Expectations

Barbara Morris

Barbara Morris

When you are “old” the expectation is that mentally and physically you are less competent than you used to be.

Before continuing, let’s establish the prevailing cultural understanding of “old”, chronologically speaking.  If we are to judge by the number of retirement communities for those “50 or better” or if we are to judge by the number of people who retire at age 55, then it seems safe  to say “old” begins at age fifty and  that’s when the expectation that you are losing it starts to kick in. You know how it goes:

“Take it easy — you are not as young as you used to be.”

“You are going to hurt yourself doing that. Let me help you.”

“Why are you still working when you should be taking it easy”

“Why are you spending money on THAT! At your age!”

“What? You have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” That expression of disgust may be followed by a sarcastic “how cute”, “tsk tsk”, “act your age” or perhaps a raised eyebrow that suggests you must be teetering on the brink of senility. After all, “old” people don’t fall in love, that’s the province of young people.

All mentally competent “old” persons know their degree of competence. To suggest they are not realistic about assessing their abilities is condescending.

That said, in many cases, expectations of decline are accurate because of failing health. In other cases, decline in competence is a result of giving in to expectation. For example, because human nature prefers leisure over effort, if you know less is expected of you, then you do less, thereby conforming to expectation and thus, you experience decline. The admonition to “use it or lose it” is particularly apt when you are “old”.

But let’s be real. “Old” people often are responsible for some of the “old people expectations” when they behave like teenagers trying to be “cute” or demean themselves with “old people” jokes, or think their age allows them to ignore acceptable standards of speech or dress.

But let’s also acknowledge that it doesn’t help that supposedly funny TV shows portray old people as senile (“Off Their Rockers”). And let’s not forget TV ads that depict old people as less than competent or engaged in ridiculous behavior,  or ads that consistently show “old” people in stereotypical roles, such as puttering in the garden, baking, playing with grandchildren — but never in roles that reflect the reality of many “old” people who still have a job they go do every day or in some other way are still productive. And let’s not forget snarky comments made by TV pundits in response to older persons who make comments they don’t agree with: “Oh, she’s/he’s old.”

More “old” people are beginning to reject the tyranny of outdated expectations, which makes it possible for them to live with the same vibrancy and capacity for accomplishment as when younger. However, at this point in our cultural development, those who challenge tradition, deviate from expectation, or act in defiance of expectation, are lauded as an anomaly — “wonderful for your age”.

Anyone fortunate enough to avoid the scourges of dementia, cancer or other debilitating disease can be “wonderful for your age” if it is understood that youth is a gift received at birth but lasts only approximately only 40 years and then fades away, UNLESS effort is made early on in life to retain the most vital aspects of youth — mental and physical competence.

Anomalies Are Never “Old”

Everyone is inspired by anomalies who are wonderful for their age.  An inspiring example is 89 year old Gloria Struck who rode her Harley 1,700 miles to Sturgis SD. I would not ride on a Harley under any circumstances, even if wrapped in Kevlar,  but I’m thrilled that Gloria rides. She inspires me to go for as much gold in my life as I can. Read about her here.

Then there is Ida Pieracci, a San Jose California Country Club legend. At 102 she holds the course record with eleven holes-in-one and still regularly plays golf. What’s the key to a long, happy life? According to Ida, “Just being a good kid!”

If you have watched Dr. Cristiane Northrup you know how inspiring she is. Not yet of “senior” age, she talks about cultural beliefs about  aging and admits she hates being around “old” people. It’s not that she doesn’t like “old” people, it’s being around them that she doesn’t like. Watch her brief video here

I hope these “anomalies”  inspire you to challenge your potential and be all that you can be — chronological age and cultural expectations be damned.


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