I am 87 years old. I have gray hair and many wrinkles, and I use a walker. My bones ache, my skin is blotchy, and I’m honest enough with myself to know that anyone looking at me knows I’m no spring chicken. On the inside, though, I feel like I’m 50 years old at most. My mind is very sharp, thank G-d. I listen to the news constantly, I read bestsellers, and I watch all the newest shows. There are very few subjects that I don’t feel comfortable talking about, and I don’t shy away from participating in most discussions.
I find that people who look at me and don’t know me see an old woman not worth getting to know. They assume that because my skin is wrinkled, so is my brain! Sometimes, I find that people either look right through me as if I don’t exist, or talk to me in a loud voice as if I’m deaf or stupid. Neither one is great.
I feel blessed to have arrived at this age with my brain intact, but I don’t feel I’m given credit for it. Yes, many of my contemporaries are losing it. Some are still living in the past, some are so forgetful that it’s hard for them to remember a name, let alone a deep thought, and, of course, sadly, I know plenty of people who have full-on dementia. It’s sad to see, so I am grateful for how sharp my mind still is. But my outside does not match my inside, and more often than not, it is assumed that I can’t finish a sentence or have a meaningful thought to share.
Is there a way for me — short of wearing a sign that says, “I’m just as with it as you”—to let people know that I feel dismissed by them? That I have much to say that I believe might even be interesting to them, that my life experiences have value? Sometimes I just want to shout, “Look at me; look at the real me, not just my walker!”
Furthermore, when I occasionally find myself with a group of young people (and at my stage, everyone is young!), people often interrupt me when I’m starting to say something, as if I’m not even speaking, as if I’m invisible.
I guess I’m just venting right now. But I hope I can also be the voice of other men and women like me who have similar experiences and frustrations.
Maybe there is no answer, but I’ve thought about writing in to you for some time now to express these feelings and so here I am. I hope that people reading this column can take a moment to think about their own attitudes towards the elderly and consider that perhaps they, too, have been dismissive toward people like me. Maybe now they’ll stop and listen to what we have to say. They might actually enjoy it!
Old But Wise
Dear Old But Wise,
Thanks so much for writing in and for being the voice of so many people like you. You bring to mind the old adage: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We’ve probably all heard this saying from the time we were young. It’s simple yet powerful. And I believe we all fall into the trap of coming into contact with others and having a knee-jerk reaction in our minds, maybe even in our subconscious minds, about who they are. We quickly, probably in less than a second, sum up what our eyes take in, do some calculations about what the signs point to, and in less time than it takes to sneeze, conclude who this person is.
We do it regarding major, important issues and even in relation to silly, little things. We might see a woman carrying a Louis Vuitton bag and immediately assume that she is upscale, moneyed, sophisticated. What we might not know is that she charged the bag years ago, is still making monthly credit-cards payments to pay it off, and that she doesn’t have a couch in her living room! The same can apply to important matters. We might notice someone who is not particularly well-groomed, whose sheitel is on crooked, and assume she couldn’t possibly have it together on any level — not knowing that she holds an important position in a Fortune 500 company.
This is a serious problem and if we want to change it, it will require a great deal of effort to step outside our quick-moving brains filled with many misconceptions in order to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, leaving our assumptions in the garbage where they belong. Some of us are guiltier of doing this and some of us less so. But my guess is that all of us fail occasionally within different scenarios, based on our own life experiences that we carry around with us, leading to faulty conjecture.
So I am so glad that you took the time to write in and expose the experiences of elderly men and women like yourself, who should be put on pedestals because of the wisdom that they have accrued over their long lives, rather than be dismissed. Other cultures actually revere the elderly, understanding that they have so many valuable life lessons to share. Here in America, we are not quite as smart. But you are opening up an important conversation and hopefully inspiring people to pause and rethink their behaviors.
We all need to see past the canes and walkers, the disabilities, the discomfort some people carry around with them that can set them apart. We need to be patient, curious, and caring enough to look behind the curtain and discover what precious jewels may be hidden there. It is in our best interest.
So when you find yourself in a group of “young people,” don’t back down! If you have something to say, go for it — even if it takes a few tries to be heard over someone interrupting you. The worst that could happen is that you’ll wake them up, shake them up, and help them examine their own flawed prejudices; they’ll ultimately be all be the wiser for it!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.