There was a short-lived TV show many years back starring the impeccable Richard Dreyfuss. His character was widowed I think, with a teenage daughter and worked in education. On one episode he said that women no longer paid attention to him at his age, they didn’t offer little smiles in passing and so on. In a culture so heavily weighted on female sexuality and its “shelf life” I just hadn’t thought how aging out of attractiveness and sexual viability might be for a man. I’ve never heard a man I know say anything like this, only that character, but it sounded true. It’s a loss for men too.
I have a theory – which is almost certainly not original in that while I did think it up, it’s likely well-documented or at least considered in social psychology tomes – that as we move through life we pay the most attention to our own peer group. So, when you’re a kid, you notice other kids. When you’re middle-aged, you notice other middle-aged people. And when you’re elderly, you notice other elderly.
I remember how much I zeroed in on other children when I was a child. Anecdotally, I was so excited when we got new neighbors and I saw little bikes being unloaded off the moving truck. Children! They have children!! Children to play with! As I type those words now, they seem bizarre as I consider what my reaction would likely be if I saw the same scene today.
Then, however, everywhere I went, I was pleased when I saw other children at hand. Which is not to say encounters with other kids always went off so swimmingly. Still, despite unpleasantries I remained optimistic about them as a group.
As I got older, my focus stayed generally with my peer group. I know I’m not alone in this. I watch people all the time and like tends to stay with like. When people cross generations (aside from relatives) in their friendships and relationships it stands out. Others notice.
(I think the internet has facilitated crossing generational – and other – divides between adults because it places the focus on what people have to say over how they look.)
Interacting with children one is not related to has become so fraught, I almost entirely pay little mind to children as a group. Since I don’t have children of my own, I don’t often find myself around kids. I almost never speak to a child beyond a brief hello unless their parent or guardian is there and then I am casting looks at the adult to signal my benign intentions and make sure everything is copacetic. Aside from these rare times, I mostly notice kids when they’re being obnoxious.
When I was younger, I really didn’t pay much attention to elderly people, except if they were related to me. As I think about this now in middle-age, though, it occurs to me that there weren’t as many elderly when I was a child. Not like now. Plus I just didn’t see them out and about, unless it was at church or something.
It’s been recently, I don’t know, the last decade or so, that I became more aware of my inattention to elderly as a group. Maybe I was sort of afraid of them when I was younger. I didn’t “get” them. And believed, from how I was raised, that I had to be wildly deferential toward them. That they were beyond reproach. Realizing that idea was nonsense and that elderly people weren’t special or entitled (independent of how they acted) changed my thinking.
I’m always good about helping older people when they need or want it but that’s no different than my approach to everybody. When I see an elderly person, especially one with a cane or other aid, approach a door, I’m quick to hold it open. My height makes me useful in stores for reaching up to nab an item off a shelf for what is usually an elderly lady. What a pain the ass that must be; when you can’t reach up to get the stuff on the top shelves or bend down to fetch the ones on the bottom shelves. Resigned to a diet of eye-level foods.
Most elderly people I see in public are in the background, not doing anything to draw attention to themselves. They are focused on their task. Do they lack the energy for anything else? Did just getting out take up their reserves? Or is it a defense, hoping that going unnoticed will keep them from harm? Does everybody look like a potential enemy when you can’t physically defend yourself? (Hmm, I guess you could say the same about kids, except that mostly I suspect that generally kids don’t know how the world can hurt them. And/or they count on being able to run away.)
There have been times I’ve engaged in conversations with elderly people and regretted it for one reason or another. To be fair, I could again say the same of people generally. And while I’ve never been openly rude to an elderly person, I don’t feel any obligation to hang around to listen to monologues, diatribes or ugly talk.
I’ll tell you what specifically started me on this thread now. Yesterday I was in a drugstore and an elderly man walked through, his hands tidily grasped together behind his lower back, the body language of someone feeling casual and at-ease. You don’t often see people walking around like that any more, have you noticed? It’s more the gesture of a man than a woman – a woman in public is more likely to have her arms at her sides or in front of her. And or clutching a purse or bag.
Anyway, I also considered that the man might not be quite okay either. See, I caught myself ignoring him initially, as if he didn’t warrant a look. And I thought how shitty is that? So I made a point to look up and make eye contact when our paths crossed a second time in the store. His expression was a bit blank, possibly confused, i.e., not engaged and friendly. Nonetheless, I thought, does it kill me to make eye contact? To acknowledge a person, even if there’s no reason to do anything more?
I don’t like being so wedded to my “group,” to the point I barely acknowledge those significantly younger or older. I’m not certain there’s a whole lot to be done about it, other than staying alert and not limiting my attention when possible.
I read once that throughout their lives, people tend to have the same age relative to their friends. It’s an interesting idea. In my case, for example, my friends have tended to be my age and older, a theme which has run fairly constant till now, even as the specific people have changed.
On the other hand, starting in childhood, one of my older sisters leaned toward people her age and younger for friends, and, pushing forty, even married someone younger.
If there is anything to this, it must have to do with the nature of the dynamic we prefer in our social relationships. I thought about that and realized I’ve wanted peers and people I can learn from.
With my sister, it’s pretty easy to understand too; she liked to be in charge, the ringleader of her friendships.
I am thinking that my way could eventually hit snags. Suppose I’m 90. Will I be looking for 100-year-old friends?? I can see where the pool of eligible contenders might begin to dry up a bit!
I do need to say that in sometimes being drawn to older friends, I have never looked for someone to “take charge” of me, i.e., tell me how to think, live, etc. Not all all. I have always been my own person and pretty capable of thinking for myself. Being interested in someone’s mind has consistently been the impetus for my friendships and relationships as well. I’ve seriously dated a man 10 years older and another 13 years older. I can think of two younger guys I seriously dated but both were long ago and have proven to be exceptions (so far?).
Another aspect to the friends business independent of age, is that my friends have typically been single, like I am (whether they never married, were divorced, and in one case, widowed). I don’t seem to befriend couples – or vice versa. Theoretically I’m not against it, but it hasn’t been part of my experience.
How old are your friends relative to you? Does the age theory seem to hold true to your experience?
I liked this summer, when all was said and done. It wasn’t perfect; I had things I was dealing with that were taxing at times, I didn’t do anything particularly amazing, and I felt a potent sense of loss at the recent death of Robin Williams. Still, I felt like I was “in” it, you know? That I didn’t wait around for summer to start or weigh it down with a raft of expectations before it got going. I attribute this in part to a philosophical shift. Instead of waiting or hoping for an optimum this-or-that, I’m more attuned to what is right in front of me. This has nothing to do with seizing every moment or living life to the fullest or any such hoo-ha – I don’t, never have, confident I never will. More a matter of paying attention, maybe, to what is accessible to me now, and working it, if I have it in me to do so. I remind myself that whatever I may think of the present, there may come a time when I am nostalgic for it.
I find myself revisiting the theme from my older post because I’m still exploring it, seeing how it plays out in my life. This summer was a good example. It was different than I thought it might be for a couple reasons, but I liked that I adjusted, focusing on what was working, and not as much on what wasn’t. There will ALWAYS be things that aren’t “working” but maybe I see that age in and of itself has brought me a bit of resiliency. Oh, I do my share of inward (and some outward) railing… tilting at windmills, but more selectively, i.e., just because there’s a windmill, I don’t have to auto-tilt.
I suck it up more. Many a time I tell myself in response to something I don’t like or would prefer different: Tough. Not to be mean – I’m mindful of that – but realistic.
“Suck it up” and “Tough” aren’t going to be too many people’s versions of feel good mantras, but I find them useful notions. The world – my world – isn’t a place that runs ever smoothly, nary a glitch or problem in sight. There is simply nothing to be done about a lot of it, but to adjust one’s thinking, if needed, and if possible. I’m reminded of the saying that success, or something like that, is the result of continuing to get back up. That ties into resiliency for sure, continuing to try, which, in the end, is usually all you can control.
It was a good summer.
I don’t know if I am unusual in this or not, but in the middle of life, I see myself on a continuum. Once in awhile I’ll spy a little girl, with long, light-colored hair, who seems bookish and sensitive, and think to myself, I was you. Other times I’ll see an older lady, one with spunk and her own style, and think, I’m going to be you.