A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Don't call me "Young man!"

I was watching the news on MSNBC when I heard Andrea Mitchell call Ruth Bader Ginsburg "76 years young."
I was furious! How patronizing can you get? As if "young" was a compliment!
But maybe I'm being too touchy. So I decided to check with one of the coolest organizations I know, Senior Center Without Walls.
It's an idea so simple, it's beautiful. Operating out of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland, it offers homebound seniors more than 40 free telephone discussion groups, accessible via conference calls from the comfort of their own homes. All they have to do is call in at the designated time and join the conversation.
The weekly groups range from the light-hearted (jokes, pets, food, knitting, movies and real-time games of Boggle) to the serious (depression support, coping with loss, and living with chronic pain). When one of the regular participants died a couple of years ago, her telephone friends held a touching conference call memorial service.
So we set up a conference call - the perfect focus group. And more than a dozen people took part, ranging from 55 to 87. And, like me, they all resent this infantilization of old age.
"I've been experiencing this for years; and if you object, you're treated as a naughty child," said Frances, 87. "The other day a man put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'You're a good girl.' I said, 'And you're a good boy, too.'"
"Good for you!" said Barbara, 74.
"I'm a two-fer - 68 and blind," said Anne. "If I'm in a store and have a younger helper with me, they do all the talking to her. 'Does she want this in a plastic bag or paper?' I'm blind, not deaf. I can talk for myself."
Oh, and don't call us "young man" "young lady," "honey" or "sweetheart," either. They're patronizing, too.
Part of the problem is that it's hard to explain old age to someone who hasn't experienced it yet.
"Some people who didn't know you when you were younger are surprised," said Anne. "They'll say, 'Oh, did you drive?' or "Oh, did play tennis?' They think you've always been old."
"We don't speak the same language," said Phyllis, who is in her 80s. "If you say, 'I have 200 CDs,' they think of music; we think of Bill Gates."
Not that we old people dislike the company of young people. Quite the contrary, in fact.
"We're not decrepit and mindless," said Carrie, 73. "We're live people who have a lot to offer to society, and we can be energized by young people who are full of life and vigor and can inspire us."
"Too many old people talk about nothing but their grandchildren and their bowel movements," added Anne. "They're living in the past."
But despite the aches and pains, some of us even like being old.
"I'm proud to be a senior citizen," said Barbara. "It's wonderful to have lived this long."
"It sure beats pimples and PMS!" said Eva, 85.
Senior Center Without Walls is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, so all donations are tax-deductible. Checks can be sent to 114 Montecito Ave., Oakland CA 94610.
The group is also seeking more volunteers to facilitate discussion groups or call people to remind them they have a conference call coming up later that day.
And, of course, they're always on the lookout for more seniors to participate.
To volunteer, sign up as a participant, or just find out more about Senior Center Without Walls, call 510-444-0243 or toll-free 877-797-7299.