Tag Archives: the invisibility of elderly

Young, middle, old

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.