Discounting Seniors

Why are young people so bad at interacting with old people?

It is something I have wondered for a very long time, and the thought sprung to mind again as I watched Michael Haneke’s Amour, which centers on an elderly man and woman, Georges and Anne, and their struggles to coexist with the much younger folk in their lives.

First is their daughter, Eva, who sits at her stricken mother’s bedside talking incessantly about money, oblivious to Anne’s obvious physical discomfort and utter disinterest in such trivial matters.

Then there is Alexandre, a piano prodigy and former student of Anne’s, who visits shortly after her stroke and lacks the tact and maturity to overlook the physical maladies she plainly does not wish to talk about.

Finally, the last straw:  The horrible visiting nurse devoid of any and all empathy for her patients who is shocked—shocked!—to be dismissed for incompetence, huffily telling Georges she has never been so reprimanded in her life.

There is a disconnect here that extends far beyond the terrain of Haneke’s film.

On certain social and political matters, the existence of a marked generational divide is both clear and uncontroversial.

The story of the 2008 presidential election was precisely one of the young versus the old.  Among voters under 30, Barack Obama beat John McCain by a score of 66-32, while McCain beat Obama 51-47 among voters 60 and older.  The 2012 election saw similar figures for Obama and Mitt Romney.

The hot social issue of the time, same-sex marriage, follows the same thrust, supported by a supermajority of young’uns and opposed by a majority of old fogies.

Of course, we could recite statistics ‘till the cows come home.  It doesn’t mean that we necessarily know anything.

The case for the inevitability of gay marriage acceptance is as follows:  Today’s old people are the final holdouts against the cause, so it is only a matter of waiting for them to die before support becomes universal.

The problem with this formulation (apart from its abject callousness) is the assumption that the opinions and general disposition of most old people is a simple function of the time in which they came of age.  That is to say, that a person’s outlook stays more or less the same throughout his or her life—whatever one believed about gay marriage in 1963 will be retained in 2013 and forevermore.

Thinking in this way, we neglect to consider the effect of aging itself on a person’s inner and outer natures.

Recall the old witticism, widely but falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

While the particular sentiment here is a bit flippant, its broader implication is an essential one:  With age, people change.

We do wrong, in other words, in regarding people of different ages as if they are somehow of a separate species that we will never completely understand.

They are, rather, a species we will ourselves one day become.  We should be careful not to so boldly assume to the contrary, on marriage or anything else.

I hasten to add that I make these observations not merely as a check against treating one’s elders with scorn, but also against treating one’s elders with an overindulgence of affection.

A particular bugaboo of mine is the way so many of us—with the purest of intensions, to be sure—speak to old folks as if they are infants, our voices assuming an unnaturally high pitch and our words carrying an air of condescension, as though old age and senility were indistinguishable from one another and that the former implies the latter.

I am skeptical whether most of the recipients of this odd behavior appreciate it.  While I certainly should not presume to speak for an entire generation of people, I am fairly confident that in my own latter years, should I reach them, I would hope to be spoken to like the adult I would then be.

In the meanwhile, I try my level best (with varying results) to regard all my fellow Homo sapiens as if age did not separate us, and was nothing more than the series of cosmic accidents that it is.

We are all one.  That’s amour.

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One thought on “Discounting Seniors

  1. I lived in Seattle a while back. I was in my late 30s. Young people in my apartment building referred to me as “old” in their dialogues while I was standing within earshot next to them in the elevator. I was 37 years old. They were in their mid twenties. I looked young than several of them. I marveled at this for about 30 seconds before I decided that the sum total of all their cognitive abilities combined would not fill the tip end of my little finger. I shrugged it off, decided I was glad and grateful that I loved all people of every age and walk of life, stepped out of the elevator and never looked back. But years later, if I walk into a room of strangers I will avoid the younger ones and head toward people who look my age. I know that they will at least have gained the civility and social skills by now which are necessary to converse intelligently with people of all ages, not just the ones who look exactly like them.

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