What’s age got to do with it?

by Madeleine Kolb

Stereotypes of aging are everywhere:  newspapers, magazines, movies,  TV shows, and those insulting, mock-humorous birthday cards for sale in most drug stores.

For those of us over 50 or 60, hardly a day goes by that we don’t encounter assumptions about our presumed decline and decay. We’re over the hill, we can’t learn new things, and before long we won’t even remember the things we used to know.

I get that a lot of this stereotyping comes from denial of aging, a fear of confronting one’s own mortality. I also get that younger people often condescend to people over 50 or 60 with the utterly mistaken idea that they’re somehow being nice.

They refer admiringly to a grandfather who “still” climbs mountains or rides a Harley or jumps from airplanes even when the engine’s not on fire.

As discussed in his TED talk, Dr. Bill Thomas, suggests that it does not occur to the younger person that he values his grandfather to the extent that the old man engages in activities associated with youth.

Recently, I came upon a twist on this attitude in an appalling concert review which appeared in the Seattle Times. This is how the author, Charles R. Cross, began:

Patti Smith is 66 years old, but at the Neptune Theatre Wednesday night she put on a vibrant and energetic performance that one would expect from someone 50 years her junior.

Mr. Cross’ review went on in that vein with four more sentences describing what a wonderful concert it was, followed by the word “but” and apparent astonishment that any one as old as Patti Smith could put on such a great show.

At one point, he also referred to her “…surprising awareness of the pop-culture mainstream.”

It occurs to me that the reviewer may actually have though he was complimenting the performer. If one strips away the the ageist language, he is saying that Patti Smith was vibrant and energetic and that her voice has never sounded better. Why not just leave it at that?

I love the way she shakes out her hair as she begins to sing. What do you think?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bob Ritzema March 15, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Nice post. It’s too bad that the way that people often choose to compliment those of us who are older is by saying that we have youthful attributes. Doing so is to pretend that we are something we aren’t, and that’s a slight of who we are.
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2 Madeleine Kolb March 16, 2013 at 10:43 am

Thanks, Bob. I’ve been reading all the posts and comments on Changing Aging, including the post by Martin Bayne and your recent blog post, and thinking about them until my brain aches.

I agree that “purpose” is hugely important to all of us–when we’re working at a job, when we decide to keep doing what we’ve been doing so well for so long, when we retire, when we need some asistance with daily care.

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3 Debra Eve April 5, 2013 at 8:16 pm

I’m with you, Madeleine. Those little words “still” and “but” reveal a world of misguided thinking. Patti Smith rocks, period!
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4 Madeleine Kolb April 6, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Debra, As you say, “Patti Smith rocks, period!” I was also struck by an earlier review in the Seattle Times of Glenn Campbell’s concert as part of his Goodbye Tour. The family began the tour after Glenn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The review (by a different writer) acknowledged the signs that the disease was progressing and also described Glen’s voice and guitar playing as outstanding.

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5 Jeanne May 2, 2013 at 11:30 am

We saw Boz Skaggs last night (68?) and I don’t believe the audience was thinking of his age at all.

I hope you complained to the misinformed Patti Smith reviewer.
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6 Madeleine Kolb May 2, 2013 at 12:30 pm

I certainly did complain. I wrote a letter to the Seattle Times, and it was published on March 7, 2013. I began by saying that I was appalled by Mr. Cross’ review and concluded with a paragraph nearly identical to the last paragraph in my post.

Just as with the Boz Skaggs concert you saw, opinions about the concert may vary, but “What’s age got to do with it?”

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7 Jeanne May 2, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Here, after a Duane Allman concert, the reviewer wrote sneeringly about the age of the crowd rather than the music. We complained and the paper published my friend’s review.
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8 Madeleine Kolb May 3, 2013 at 9:31 am

Jeanne, That’s exactly what we should do when media cover a performance in a disrespectful or condescending way, based on the age of the performer or his audience. If we submit letters to the editor, it may help raise consciousness about the negative stereotypes which the paper is perpetuating.

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9 James July 2, 2013 at 7:41 pm

May I just say wow? I have to honestly say that as a 21 year old I have never once thought of it like that, but you’re absolutely right. Personally I have always thought of people as amazing, but I feel like I have been bias towards age a bit.

Hmm… I must say that this post is really thought provoking for me as a person because now I’m reviewing how I see things done by older people in my head.

I have always been thinking about it from the reverse, people who look down on younger people based on the actions of a few. For example, I imagine if you talk about high school students, someone who reads it will think “druggies and party goers” even though that’s false it seems to be a popular stereotype.

But never have I thought about the stereotype for older people, possibly because I have never been mixed into that stereotype and I typically don’t judge anyone by appearance but rather by their actions.

This is quite the food for thought and I thank you for it.

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10 Mary McPhee August 21, 2013 at 10:05 am

I’m writing to ask if you remember an elderblog of a few years past, Code Name Nora. Using a novelistic style and in third-person voice, Nora wrote about life in her retirement community she called the Twilight Zone, “a hazy, purplish place between bright, vivid life and the utter darkness of oblivion.” (But not to be morbid.) I think many of you read Nora. I just wanted to tell you that the old girl is still alive, still writing, in fact blogging again, but she’s lonely and would love to have you visit. She’s concentrating now on the books she written and published on Amazon’s Kindle program—eight, would you believe it—among which is Code Name Nora.

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