Candid Interviews on aging: Part II — Surprises, Perceptions, and Stereotypes

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Part 1 of this interview series addresses much of what I’d been curious about for some time: what is “old,” and how drastically does the definition change as one ages? What do people fear or look forward to when they think about aging, and how well do those hopes and fears match the experience of old age? How do real people, not numbers or statistics or graphs, feel about their appearance changing? (A New York Daily News article on men and women and aging — Aging a concern for many Americans, but harder for women: poll— finds that women are generally more concerned than men about their physical appearance as they age.)

In Part II, I wanted to know more from the older group: their opinions of “old people” stereotypes, whether positive or negative; what, if anything, has surprised them about “old age”; how they believe others see them; and, finally, the question that prompted me to conduct these interviews — how do they feel about younger people calling them “cute” for doing things everyone else does, but doing them while old?

I decided I had to know their feelings about the “cute” label after an experience I had several years ago while writing for the newspaper. A World War II Marine Corps veteran I’d already interviewed came in to have his picture taken, and he and I talked for a bit while we waited for the photographer to arrive. While we waited — and while he sipped from a cup of very bad coffee from the newsroom coffee pot — he was approached by a staff journalist who spoke to him as if he were a hard-of-hearing five-year-old. After Cummings had had his picture taken and had left the newsroom, another staff member from a different department walked over to me, asked who he was, told me she “loved his little outfit,” and called him cute.

His “little outfit” was a pair of tan pants, a white button-up shirt, a blue sport coat, and men’s (not baby) shoes.

The following is an informal interview with 19 people, eight of them between the ages of 30 and 45 and the remaining eleven over the age of 59. Most of the questions are directed toward the older group, but the younger respondents contribute, too.

The names of the interview subjects were chosen by them. Some are their real names, and some aren’t. Every person’s answer to every question will not be included here, but I did my best with the selected answers to show the range of responses.

What, if anything, has surprised you about the experience of “old age”?

STEVE, 66: That my mind still thinks I’m in my thirties. Maybe forties.

SE VERMAAS, 60: The difficulty transitioning into “old age” has been a shock. I am more often depressed than I ever imagined possible, most of it stemming from the probability that someday my family will go on without me.

MARIE, 64: What the arthritis has done to my hands, and how your body betrays you by aching all the time, and what your skin does. In my mind I am fixed somewhere in my 40s, but my body says otherwise, and it’s the true clock.

ROB RIDPATH, 59: How quickly the years have passed! How many opportunities were missed over the years. The degree to which my damned joints hurt.

DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: The fact of still feeling young inside; the fact that I’m working harder and have less free time than ever. The sense of time slipping too fast and doors closing one after another, never to reopen.

CHAR, 75: I did not realize how much pain osteoarthritis caused. I’m not enjoying the deterioration of my spinal column. I now appreciate Dad’s constant consumption of Aspirin, and Tums for the acid reflux. Mom had sciatic nerve issues and now I am trying to successfully conquer that as uncomplainingly as she did.

GRAMMYOF5, 69: Loss of balance and the inability to climb up on things. I’ve taken a couple of tumbles trying to climb on a bench to hang a bird feeder. My knees and muscles don’t have the strength they used to. I get tired much easier and feel it when I try to keep up with the grandchildren for several days. I need to nap. I never expected to need a shoulder replacement. However, I am thankful that we have the medical expertise for those replacement parts.

DEANNA, 64: Recently, I bumped a junker car with the rubber pad on the tow hitch on the back of my truck. A young man came running out of Caribou coffee with the car’s owner, a young woman who worked there. They looked at the car — the woman realized there was no damage, but the man, trying to impress her, demanded my license, insurance papers, etc., so she could file a claim if she wanted. He was very insistent, and there was no damage, but I got so mad at him I started to shake because I wanted to tell him to get away from me. The young woman kept saying it was no problem, and I asked if he was a policeman, but he had a shirt with a car dealership embroidered on the pocket, so I knew better. He just said he wanted to be sure she knew what to do in instances like this.

I nearly lost my temper, but when he saw me shaking, he put his hand on my back (I was wearing a Harley leather jacket), patted it, and said I should not drive for a little while because I seemed shaken up. I wanted to swear at him for making a federal case out of a little dent in a license plate. I continued into Caribou to meet my friend for coffee, and the man met me at the door and again suggested I rest for a little while before I drive anywhere.

If he only knew what I wanted to do. I wasn’t shaken up at bumping her car, but at his arrogant third degree. He saw me as an old lady who shouldn’t drive. All I said to him was, “I just spent two days teaching defensive driving, so I think I can judge my ability to drive.” I was surprised that he saw me as a feeble old lady who had trouble driving. Me? I put 30,000–40,000 miles on my truck and 15,000 miles on my Harley each year.

JEAN TURNER, 76: Probably the fact that wisdom seems to be more about accepting the unknowable and the mysteries of every human being as opposed to having answers or being sure about the “right” way to live life or understand the human predicament.

“He saw me as an old lady who shouldn’t drive. All I said to him was, “I just spent two days teaching defensive driving, so I think I can judge my ability to drive.” — Deanna, 64

CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: I am surprised and thankful to God that He decided I should feel, look and act much younger than my age. He has given me energy and motivation to actively participate in whatever in life He has for me. And when I was 75, He gave me a beautiful wife, a wonderful marriage and a love so strong that it stretches beyond explanation.

ROY, 81: One can’t really “retire.” You must find other challenging things to do.

How do you feel others perceive you at your age?

STEVE, 66: I’d say as a ‘senior citizen’. As an old guy.

SE VERMAAS, 60: I have always been a charmer and adore women. Now that I’m getting older, I have noticed far less willingness among females to flirt or even make eye contact. I am unusual in that I have many tattoos and my ears are gauged. I tend to perceive that I’m seen as quirky or slightly “off my rocker.” When I’m out in public, I don’t feel the love that I did even five years ago . . . I believe people see me as past my prime and no longer useful.

MARIE, 64: An older middle aged woman who is still able to walk (thankfully) upright and without limping. I can still string two or three coherent sentences together, so I think they perceive me as I have always been.

ROB RIDPATH, 59: I think people relate or react to me based more upon my personality and less upon my age. They view me dynamically and differently (within the parameters of our relationship) based on what I bring to the table on a given day. Sometimes I’m ebullient, sometimes I’m an ass. Some days are good. Some are worse. My reaction to life is rarely static, even if it may fall within a relative framework after you get to know me. I think they look at me as an individual of a certain age, with a particular history, emotions, etc. Sometimes people loves me — sometimes they doesn’t.

“I love doing things like exploding Coke bottles with Mentos, building snowmen, creating foul food (like snot pudding). Most people seem surprised when I tell them my age.” — GrammyOf5, 69

DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: Quite young and active for my age.

CHAR, 75: People who know me think I am vital and young for my 75 years. I’m often mistaken for being in my mid 60s.

GRAMMYOF5, 69: I think people perceive me as younger than I am. I’m generally upbeat and happy. I look younger than 69 (good genes and a good hairdresser, and I act younger — especially when I have my grandchildren around). I love doing things like exploding Coke bottles with Mentos, building snowmen, creating foul food (like snot pudding). Most people seem surprised when I tell them my age.

DEANNA, 64: Recently, it is occurring to me that I am somewhat invisible. As if my age/gray hair/wrinkles have rendered me irrelevant. My value seems to have diminished, though I still work and have respect from my clients and value, due to experience, to my students.

JEAN TURNER, 76: I might be wrong, but I think they see me as pretty with it, attractive, fun, and wise, but also willing to be vulnerable.

CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: Most people see me as being in my late 40s or 50s because of my much younger looks and my continuous physical activities.

ROY, 81: As age 65 in appearance, thinking and activities.

Because I’m interested in what we expect vs. what ends up being true, I wanted to know from the younger group what they anticipate feeling in the future if they’re treated a certain way by those younger than them and to compare that with what the older group is experiencing or feeling.

What kind of treatment toward you do you think would most annoy you when you get old?

SARAH, 36: It would annoy me to be treated like a child or as if I were less intelligent.

EMILY, 31: I think the deference that people show to old people. As though they are automatically right just because they are old.

HELEN BROOM, 37: Being treated as if I’m going to blow away, treated with kid gloves just because I’m old.

SONIA, 30: I think it would be the same thing that really annoyed me about being young — that people would treat me like I’m the wrong age to possibly know anything, that all my wisdom and knowledge will be ignored and I would be petted upon the head like the family dog and told I’m “cute.” Seriously irritating stuff.

MIA, 30: Being treated like I don’t know anything, or being disrespected. I might not know everything, but I do know a lot of things, and I would really resent my life experience being devalued.

ASHLEY, 34: People trying to do things for me.

MIKE, 39: Disrespect.

K.C., 45: Being ignored.

Back to the older group:

Are there things younger people say or ways they behave toward old people that annoy you?

STEVE, 66: Not that I’ve noticed. Some people of all ages think they know everything. They all annoy me.

SE VERMAAS, 60: I have become invisible to young people in general. It’s painful if I let it be. Even at 60, I sometimes repeat myself or have a “senior moment,” and can find myself the butt of jokes or am seen as an annoyance by my own children and some of their peers.

MARIE, 64: No, not specifically. There are ignorant people (or jerks) of every age. I have faith in the younger generations; they seem more altruistic as a whole.

DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: Unsurprisingly, the general lack of respect for elders in our society grates appallingly. In the process of living and hopefully reflecting on the experience, old people accumulate a large and often disregarded store of wisdom. Plus, they’ve been young, and understand the perspective and blind spots of youth, whereas the opposite doesn’t hold.

GRAMMYOF5, 69: The attitude that we become stupid as we age. (I can do more math in my head than any young person raised with a calculator.) I tend to associate with younger, respectful people and this hasn’t been much of a problem. If it is, I confront them on it and tell them why I find it offensive.

DEANNA, 64: Not particularly, unless you consider the parking lot story I just told. When I hear young people talk of older people in a way that indicates they are less intelligent due to their age, it bristles me. We’re older, not stupid. And maybe we don’t react the way younger people would to things, but perhaps it’s because we don’t see the point in getting all worked up about things that seem important to younger people. As we age, we tap into the history we have, and realize what’s important and what can wait. Some things seem like the end of the world to younger people, and as we age, we see that everything passes. Gossip, the urgency of what people think of you, etc., these things aren’t as important as other things.

JEAN TURNER, 76: I guess the only thing would be the slight assumption that I sometimes feel on the part of younger people that older people don’t have the same intensity of feelings that the young do. They are wrong.

CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: Probably something they say might annoy me, depending on my day. Can’t think of anything right off.

ROY, 81: That they think older people are no longer “with it” and therefore no longer have anything to offer.

What older person stereotype is most offensive to you?

STEVE, 66: Haven’t really encountered any that offend me.

SE VERMAAS, 60: Dirty old man, or “creeper” in today’s vernacular.

MARIE, 64: Slow, stupid, or hard to get along with.

DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: The doddering old fool.

GRAMMYOF5, 69: Being a little old lady incapable of doing anything other than sitting and rocking. Not knowing how to drive safely.

DEANNA, 64: That we’re all sick and going to the doctor all the time and taking tons of medications.

CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: People assuming just because you are old you have lost one or more of your mind, body, sight, hearing, taste, energy, initiative, intelligence and/or humor.

What older person stereotype do you agree with or can you relate to?

STEVE, 66: Some seniors can’t drive worth a crap. But they probably never could, now that I think about it.

SE VERMAAS, 60: The aches and pains that come with aging.

MARIE, 64: When I was working full time I used to think, what do these retired people do all day? Now that I am retired from my full time job, I think how did I find the time to WORK full time?

DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: The need for naps to recharge.

CHAR, 75: My hearing is crappy even with hearing aids on. So I guess that’s a stereotype for me. Call me an “old fart” and it’s literally the truth. I often toot, toot along.

GRAMMYOF5, 69: The older woman who speaks her mind and isn’t hesitant to voice her opinion. (A more gentle version of Maxine.) Enjoying my second childhood playing with my grandchildren.

DEANNA, 64: I honestly do believe things were better in the “old” days. That the way we grew up was vastly freer and safer than now, and we long to have things the way they were then. And we wish for young people that they could feel the freedoms we felt. We long for that and feel bad for future generations and the loss of liberties they will never know.

ROY, 81: One that [stereotypes older people as] still very much alive and relevant, very much involved.

Younger people will often say old people are “wise.” Do you agree or disagree?

STEVE, 66: Some people keep learning through life, some don’t. So yes and no.

SE VERMAAS, 60: I totally disagree. Far too many older people refuse to evolve. Instead, they cling to racist, homophobic and other outmoded concepts of “morality,” often attempting to force such on the rest of society.

“Age alone does not bring wisdom, only experiences. Some folks will never be wise as they do not learn from their experiences.”— Char, 75

MARIE, 64: Not any wiser than the norm. We have just lived a life and are around to tell the tale.

ROB RIDPATH, 59: Generally speaking, I would strongly disagree. Older people are just “older.” Some are wise. Some are dumb as rocks. I’m not a fan of stereotypes, whether gender-based, racial or age-related. People are individuals (I hope).

DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: Generally in strong agreement, though age alone doesn’t confer wisdom. There are stupid, ignorant people of all ages.

CHAR, 75: Age alone does not bring wisdom, only experiences. Some folks will never be wise as they do not learn from their experiences.

GRAMMYOF5, 69: That depends on the person. There are stupid elders as well as stupid young adults. I do think the majority of us gain wisdom as we age. I certainly know a lot more than I did 40 years ago. There are times when I wish I could go back and re-parent my children, but they have turned out to be wonderful young men in spite of my parenting skills. The older I get, the more I want to learn. I have learned that there is a fine line between helping and controlling, and being more aware of my own control issues makes me a lot wiser.

DEANNA, 64: Not just because they are old. It depends on how much they are open to new ideas and their ability to apply what they have experienced to what is happening now. If they were stubborn and dim when they were young and didn’t change, age wouldn’t give them wisdom.

JEAN TURNER, 76: I go with Erikson’s assessment of the challenge of old age being wisdom vs. despair. Some people are not wise just because they never fully engaged in life or now realize that they made terrible mistakes and there is not enough time to correct them. Others think they are wise but are only self-righteous. Wisdom is hard to come by. True wisdom is a mixture of empathy for oneself and others, acceptance of the complexity of life and other human beings, pondering one’s experiences and reflecting on the experiences of others, and humility.

ROY WHITE, 81: Too broad to generalize, but still I believe most are.

What reaction do you have to younger people who speak to old people as if they’re children, or who refer to old people as “cute” for holding hands, dancing, or in some cases simply for being old?

SE VERMAAS, 60: The “cute” thing doesn’t bother me in the least, as “old folks” are often so endearing that many people see them as cute (and endearing). Sincerity is the key. My wife Jen is an RN. She has worked exclusively with the elderly her entire career and absolutely adores them . . . she actually sees them as cute; her eyes just sparkle when she talks about some of her interactions with them. In this vein, I would take no offense whatsoever. However, when someone speaks to an older person as though he or she is a child, I see the speaker as ignorant . . . like people who call Asians “Orientals” or black people “negro.”

MARIE, 64: I have never liked condescension.

ROB RIDPATH, 59: “What the hell is wrong with you,” comes to mind, or “How about minding your own damned business?” On a less surly day, “Wait til they take their clothes off and get busy!” Is that one of the stereotypes? If so, it would be one which annoys me!

“I have never liked condescension.” — Marie, 64

CHAR, 75: I excuse people and/or tell them that my brain is slower but not dead; that usually gets a laugh and change of attitude. And it is cute seeing elderly people dancing or holding hands. It warms people's hearts and makes them realize that love adjusts to the age of the loved ones.

GRAMMYOF5, 69: I object to being called “Honey” or especially “Sweetie” and don’t hesitate to say so. I can tolerate “Ma’am” when people don’t know my name. I am irked whenever people are condescending to elders, the handicapped, or even children. When people by-pass my grandchildren and ask me a question, such as what the child wants for a meal in a restaurant, I defer to the child and say, “Tell them what you want, Mary.” When they give elders a condescending smile or “cute” remark, I don’t say anything. It is up to the recipient of those remarks/actions to respond. I’m very tall, blonde, and not wrinkled (yet) and so far don’t get the “cute” looks/attitude.

DEANNA, 64: I think they are condescending and diminishing the value of the people they are judging. Being deemed cute, in my humble opinion, no matter how old you are, is as if the object of the opinion is being packed in a box and put on a shelf to be glanced at, then forgotten until being pulled out to look at from time to time. “Cute” is a word, to me, that describes something little, static, unfinished and unimportant, though nice to look at.

JEAN TURNER, 76: Well, I have two responses. One, I call my friends who look and act sharp “cute,” so I view that as a compliment. On the other hand I had an interesting experience last week when I was in a museum with two friends, one of whom we borrowed a wheel chair for because she was recovering from a broken ankle. The receptionist treated this friend entirely differently than she did the rest of us — saying, “Why don’t you bring your ‘little’ friend over here?” But maybe that was more a typical response to treating a handicapped person as if she was mentally challenged rather than age discrimination.

CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: The first part of your question can be answered by speculating on the IQ of people who speak to old people as if they’re children. It’s much more demeaning than the second part of your question (cute). Just because we’re old or in some cases may look old when we’re not doesn’t mean that we all automatically have dementia when we reach a certain age. I’ve known men who are still extremely tough and very rugged who, if you treated them like a child, would take a good, healthy swing at you and would probably hit their target.

Being called cute depends on the context. People may think they have good intentions when they refer to old couples as cute, but it doesn’t come off that way to the couple. We were cute when we were born, but cuteness wears off pretty quick. If you’re trying to complement us, try some of the things I’ve heard: “I hope we look that good when I get their age,” or, “I hope I can climb those stairs like he does when I reach his age,” or, “I love to see older couples truly expressing their love for each other.”

And the final, and probably most important, question:

What would you like younger people to know about being “old”?

STEVE, 66: It’s nothing to be afraid of.

SE VERMAAS, 60: That it is so important for them to be health conscious. If they do otherwise, the day will come that they will pay dearly.

“It’s going to catch up with you far more quickly than you can imagine.”—Rob Ridpath, 59

MARIE, 64: First off, if you’re lucky, you too will be old one day. Second, time speeds up as you age so stop wishing your life away and enjoy the journey. It goes fast.

ROB RIDPATH, 59: It’s going to catch up with you far more quickly than you can imagine. Make the most of every opportunity and embrace the inevitable. Just a part of life.

DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: That old people in the main still feel young inside — they’re not much different from you.

CHAR, 75: One of the privileges is that no one is really shocked when I say exactly what I’m thinking, crude words and all.

GRAMMYOF5, 69: “Old” is a concept. It is a thought. We are as “old” as we act and feel. Life’s an adventure and aging is a blast. We can get away with all kinds of things as we age. If I forget something, I tell folks that they have to cut me some slack because I’m both a senior and blonde. Take care of your health and you’ll find aging a real blast.

DEANNA, 64: It’s what you make of it. Staying healthy is the ultimate key. Nothing, absolutely nothing is more important. Without health, money, love and power are nothing.

JEAN TURNER, 76: Older people have exactly the same emotions and feelings as younger people.

CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: You don’t have to dread getting old.

ROY, 81: You’ll be there before you know it, so don’t ignore it. You really need to find a passion for something and take it from there. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’ll play golf forever. Hang on to your friends and make new ones.


Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novel THE AGE OF THE CHILD: When the pro-creation Citizen Amendment leads to a ban on birth control and abortion, politicians find babies abandoned on their doorsteps — and that’s just the beginning. “A powerful indictment about an all-too-possible United States. Tsetsi’s prose is luminous; it puts the lie to such corrupt and immoral political acts, and does so via an exciting drama that illuminates the hypocrisies of our time without flinching.”Alan Davis, author of So Bravely Vegetative and Senior Editor Emeritus of New Rivers Press

An intriguing look at a future that feels frighteningly possible.” — Journal Inquirer

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Author, THE AGE OF THE CHILD & others. Former adjunct prof & journo. Co-host, ChildfreeGirls series:

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