“Shady Pines, Ma.” –the ever-hovering threat to place one’s parent in a retirement home, as delivered by Dorothy Zbornak, The Golden Girls
After over a week of pulling quotes from my favorite TV show for each post, finally, we have a topic firmly in the show’s wheelhouse–the subject of the elderly.
Geriatric issues are not among my pet topics. (Part of the genius of The Golden Girls is that you don’t have to be old or especially fond of old people to enjoy it.) But in the South, along with the zealous regard for the sanctity of womanhood, there is a veneration afforded to the elderly. So let’s ask the tough question again: is the differential, often preferential, treatment earned?
If you witnessed my brutal takedown of chivalry in the last post, you may be expecting another hatchet job, this time on the topic of honoring older people. You can rest assured, though, I’ve only brought pruning shears this time.
Certain abilities tend to fade with age. It’s not an immutable rule that one’s physical and mental aptitudes will decline, but biology makes it more difficult than not to maintain or improve one’s condition over time.
Because we associate aging with decline, we offer deference to the elderly, whether that means offering them a seat, a discount, or free rein to curse on national TV (like Jane Fonda did). These acts of deference are our gifts to them, in honor of their long lives and in consideration of their generally reduced abilities.
I’m OK with that. That’s reasonable, thoughtful, and not too presumptuous. My one caveat is that I sense everyone peeking at the horizon as they are showering these benefits on their elders.
Age is the one demographic no adult spends their entire life inhabiting, so there’s the nifty factor of planning ahead that’s involved in our regard for the elderly. We want to treat them the same way we wish to be treated when we get there. Karmic insurance, if you will. Or psychic social security.
In a way, this makes honoring the elderly something akin to a mass delusion, whereby if we all buy into it, it makes it so. Not to get overly macro, but the same can be said of society as a whole. We all acquiesce to a common set of social rules that benefit us broadly; in turn, we come to think these rules are reality, when they are in fact only conveniences we have constructed that allow us to live more securely.
In short, I can agree to treating old people well, but I won’t agree that’s how nature or God “intended” us to act. It’s part of how we cope with aging and choose to create order and security in our worlds. As someone who is committed to social justice, this approach resonates with me.
The tricky part for me is when we wade into the thorny territory of wisdom. The “wisdom of the elders,” in fact, is a subject which has plagued me throughout my life.
When I was a child, I fretted over the mind-boggling responsibilities of being in high school, college, or, God forbid, being an adult. How did they do it? As I passed each milestone, I acknowledged the rough patches of personal growth, but largely shrugged my shoulders. No task or signifier of adult life was anywhere close to the draining, superhuman ordeal I thought it would be.
Slowly, over the years, I have come to realize that life is just life. There is no young life, adult life, and old life. Life happens in a steady stream. You adjust some things here and there, but it keeps coming at you whether you adjust or not. Some people are good at making these adjustments and become “wise.” Some repeat the same mistakes into advanced age. These I will uncharitably call “old fools.”
The only wisdom I’ve gained as I’ve gotten older is that getting older doesn’t make one wise. Most of the people I’ve known or observed who were myopic or ignorant have remained that way for years on end. Some people do change, but that depends on the person. It’s not about age at all.
Which brings me to my Golden Girls quote. “Shady Pines, Ma,” is one of the best known from the show, and to me it’s a delicious riff on “you’re not too old for me to take you across my knee.” Except in this case, it really drives the point home that you can never be too old to be put in your place, whether that’s in a corner with your nose against the wall when you’re eight, or in a retirement home when you’re 80. It’s an egalitarian sentiment that makes me hopeful for my twilight years. For whomever associates with me at that stage of my life, I would ask to be treated like I have some sense, to call me out when I don’t, and to not worship at my altar because I managed to not die while time passed.
That’s no accomplishment. That’s just life.