Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Downward Spiral

Take one sexy stripper, two
fiances, life insurance, jealousy,
murder, a possible ephebophile,
and a bad script. Mix well.
A whydonit.

Beware the Downward Spiral! We all know that as we age we slowly begin going downhill both physically and intellectually. This is a completely natural biological process. But there is another dimension involved, a cultural one. All cultures have ideas about aging and how to deal with it. In the New Guinea Highlands, for example, funerals are held for elderly persons before they die. Having such a funeral is regarded as an honor. Pigs are sacrificed for a grand feast. People attend from great distances to pay their respects and receive gifts of pork. The person being honored makes a speech of thanks. These are highly emotional events. The honoree often breaks down and cannot continue. Such ceremonies are believed necessary to placate the ghost that might otherwise linger and bother the survivors.
In the United States the process of aging and dying is more subtle. Once friends and loved ones, and even strangers, perceive you are aging, their behavior towards you changes. The precise age at which this occurs varies from person to person but is inevitable. And even though everyone’s ideas and behaviors are usually motivated by the best of intentions, they accelerate and complicate this otherwise naturally occurring process, not always for the best. Even terms of address change and you find yourself suddenly referred to as “grandpa,” or “gramps,” or even “Pops.” These are not always or necessarily disrespectful, but they are a far cry from Mr. So-and-so. The aged and the ancestors are not highly respected in America as they are in places like New Guinea.

Americans have many cultural notions about older people. For example, it is widely believed that old people are more conservative than younger ones. This stereotype is applied to everyone. If you are old and profess to be liberal and progressive you might well be labeled as “difficult” or “contrary.” At the very least you will be accused of “not acting your age.” This is also true if you do not dress age-appropriately. At best you may be described as “eccentric.”
Older people are regarded as increasingly incapable. No matter how well one drives, for example, there is always doubt. This results in subtle and not so subtle hints someone else should drive, and more and more they do, thus slowly shutting down one of your activities whether you like it or not. Doors begin opening for you and people begin carrying things for you. Protesting these favors marks one as “stubborn.” You begin to get help in walking, especially up and down stairs. It doesn’t matter how well you walk or even if you enjoy it, they still try to assist you. If you shake off these favors you are just “getting cranky.” People buy your tickets and see to it you get on the right train or bus, whether you require or desire this assistance or not. They insist you sit when you would rather stand, and they steady you when crossing the street. They begin to wonder if your finances are in order and might even suggest they should help balance your checkbook and pay your bills. If you object too strenuously to these attentions you may be labeled as “cantankerous.”
Memory is an area especially problematical. Everyone knows that as you grow older your memory deteriorates. They insist you must remember things you did even though you believe you never did such things. They insist you read a particular book, or saw a particular movie, whether you think you did or not. If you deny having done so, they don’t believe you, insisting it’s your memory rather than theirs that’s faulty. If it turns out there are books you read and forgot this proves what they already think they know. When you are old and have read thousands of books are you really supposed to remember them all? Similarly, they remind you of meals you are said to have eaten, and if you don’t remember, once again, your memory is fading. I’m sure there are many people who can’t remember every meal, but if you are old and can’t remember, that’s bad.
Old people are not supposed to ride horses or motorcycles or go sky-diving or engage in other overly strenuous events, although there are occasional exceptions to these unwritten rules and expectations. If someone violates one and gets hurt or killed we say, “there’s no fool like an old fool.” Similar comments are heard if older people divorce, especially if a younger woman is involved. If you’re old you’re supposed to respect the cultural parameters of age. It’s just as “cute” and inappropriate to hear old people sound like children as it is to hear children sound like adults, a fact demonstrated occasionally in television ads.
People in America forget that stereotypes don’t apply to everyone. They begin to speak louder as it is well known that hearing deteriorates with age, whether in your case it has or not. They ask you if you need help reading a menu or hearing the television. They find it remarkable, almost miraculous, that so-and-so’s memory “is just as good as ever,” or they are still “sharp as a tack.” Older people are just not supposed to have normal faculties. And if you ever suffered a heart attack or stroke, no matter how mild or how completely you might have recovered, this concern is magnified tenfold. You become coddled and sheltered, even smothered with care. You are not allowed to shovel snow, lift anything heavier than a deck of cards, smoke or drink, or even enjoy the foods you have eaten all your life. Not only are you patronized, supervised, managed and supported, you are, in fact, infantilized. How can you object to this benign and generous treatment? Isn’t it wonderful to know that people care about your well-being and take such good care of you? But there is danger here as well, when you suddenly realize you are becoming a completely useless person.

"There are many who lust for the simple answers of doctrine or degree. They are on the left and right. They are not confined to a single part of society. They are terrorists of the mind."
A. Bartlett Giamatti

1 comment:

BillH said...

Have you ever seen the movie "The World's Fastest Indian" with Anthony Hopkins? I couldn't help but think of it as I read your post... some of the themes it has going on include aging and life dreams. Good flick. Given the constraints of aging bodies, the 22 year old inside of us is still dreaming, and still desiring to fulfil those dreams.