Liberty for Senior Citizens, Part I

Dr. Gresham, President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor, Bethany College, Bethany, West Virginia, here reveals, in part, his plans for those busy years ahead.

Older Americans are in a serious identity crisis. Many of the norms for aging are not appropriate for bright and active older people. The norms are changing which adds to the problems of identity. The acceptable role for “grandparents,” “senior citizens,” and “older Americans” is anything but clear; but even when it is clarified, it turns out to be objectionable to any person who has a mind of his own. One cannot fit the stereotypes that have accumulated through years of misunderstanding.

Old people are regarded as a sort of nuisance. The prevailing attitude seems to be, “Get out of the labor force and leave room for the young,” “get off the highway and let the young people who wish to go somewhere, go,” “these things cannot possibly mean anything to you so get out of the way and let us enjoy them.”

I have noticed a look of irritation and contempt when I must ask some mumbling young person to repeat a sentence because I do not clearly understand what he is saying. When a young person spills his coffee, it is just a mistake; but when I spill mine, it is because I am shaky and the person at hand may be irritated. The doctors say, “At your age you should not undertake this kind of treatment,” or an onlooker will say, “Just look at the old fool trying to be romantic.” Once it was said of children, “they should be seen and not heard.” This same attitude of contempt has now been transferred to older people. The attitude seems to be, “Shut up, Dad. Things have changed since you had anything to do with them.”

This attitude does not always have a hostile edge. It may be a benign compassion which increases the intensity of the sting. It is easier to face contempt than such an attitude as, “Oh, there, there now; of course you feel that way because you are old.” A person who is pitied is diminished in self-respect far more than a person who is scorned. Members of one’s own family may be swept up in the conventional attitudes toward aging to the extent that they feel a condescending attitude of pity toward anyone past sixty-five. What could be more infuriating to a highly competent septuagenarian than to have one say, “How remarkable. You still drive a car?” or “You are in your seventies. Do you still give lectures?”

There are times when those of us who are old need sympathy and pity and we do well to accept it with grace and gratitude; but there are other times when we deserve respect and we resent being exposed to the so-called “compassion for the old” which is about the most obnoxious attitude anyone could hold for us. When we are capable and qualified people, we should be regarded as equals where this is appropriate, superiors where we deserve it, as inferiors when the appraisal is just; but in every case, we have the right to stand on our own feet and be honorable, respected people.

The young people I know, of course, reflect none of these attitudes, but this is a personal matter. My students regard me as a contemporary. The contempt appears only in impersonal relationships.

A little bit of common sense will tell any reflective person that many people have a whole new surge of vitality, interest and ability in their sixties. This is particularly true for people in public life, people in business, professions and in finance. The stereotype of the spent old person at sixty is about one hundred per cent wrong. Yet older people face major discrimination when they attempt to market their talents. I have been shocked by my contemporaries in law and medicine who are still active in their professions who say to me, “Oh, at your age, I do not think you should take on anything else.” Here are intelligent people who would not give up their own responsibilities for anything, advising their patients and clients to live by the distorted norms.

These norms, however, are changing. Once the old people in America were few, but now we are many. With the increase in life expectancy and the interesting configuration of population growth, old people have come to be a powerful political force. Now eleven per cent of the American people are past sixty-five. As the numbers have been increasing, so have the skills and methods of political clout. Many old people have come to be self-conscious exponents of a minority seeking a voice in public affairs. The large associations of people in their sixties or older are as numerous and active as any associations in America.

Certainly I cannot speak for other people who have lived six or seven decades; but I can speak for myself and, by conversation, insight and study, reflect the attitudes and opinions as well as the needs and interests of many contemporaries. Some of the points that I make here may be widely disputed, as I find myself disputing some of the most vigorous attempts of some aging activists to get special interest legislation approved by the Congress. The privilege of differing viewpoints is certainly an earned prerogative of the mature. When I say we want these things, I really mean that these are the things that seem to me paramount for those of us who have reached the sixties and beyond.

Part 2 tomorrow. A/D

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