Seniors Not Going Gently Into That Good Night

(Originally published in Main Line Life 4/16/08.)

Suddenly they are everywhere. Old people. They’re featured in full-page magazine ads for fitness centers, and in television commercials they are seen hiking mountains in Nepal, and trekking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They smile broadly (with braces, yet!) as they twirl gaily about the dance floor, or kayak across a glacial lake in the wilds of Canada. They’re drinking pomegranate juice and soy lattes, eating bran muffins in between yoga and tennis, and tracking their retirement accounts on their laptops. They are banding together and living in nice, sunny climates in gated enclaves with gourmet cooking classes, book groups, and personal trainers.

It used to be that youth was the thing. Young people once had it all – freedom to hitchhike around Europe on ten dollars a day, VW buses that sputtered down purple highways on the way to California, all the really great rock bands. A pouty and hip Mick Jagger sang way back when What a drag it is getting’ old…(More on that later.)

Now no one wants to be young. The dollar is so weak overseas that very few young people can afford to go to Europe. Young people trudge like Sherpas to school, stooped under the weight of their four hundred-pound backpacks and other burdens of youth. They have to study hard, be a three-sport athlete, and cure cancer in high school so they can get into a good college. In college they will endure four more years of hard work, and then – if they are very lucky – they’ll actually land a job, where they get to work hard some more. Sounds like a lot of fun!

Old people, on the other hand, have it made. They go on Carnival cruises, they re-discover sex (at least according to all the pharmaceutical ads), they get travel discounts with their Silver Wings programs, they get early bird dinners, and they even have special large print books.

Old people don’t really want to be called “old people” any more. They might call themselves senior citizens, or “seasoned citizens.” They are in denial, but they simply don’t care what you think.

Older people today got to live through all the best times: the fifties, the sixties, and the seventies. They saw Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and Janis Joplin in concert; they were on American Bandstand and at Woodstock; they were the first wearers of bell-bottom jeans. I feel sorry for my kids. What are they going to tell their children? “Wow, the eighties and nineties were amazing times. Um…we had Seinfeld, Justin Timberlake, and the Simpsons. It was great.” Yawn.

Old people are no longer going gently into that good night. Some senior citizens are even considered sexy – well, the men at least. Sean Connery, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford all kept what it takes to make our collective hearts flutter. I still haven’t decided, though, whether Mick Jagger, strutting his stuff at the age of sixty-four is still cool, or just downright disturbing. (Check out the Martin Scorcese concert film Shine A Light. After witnessing two hours of Keith Richards and his saggy old man arms and ravaged face in IMAX you may be traumatized for life.)

My father’s mother, my Nana, may have been part of the last generation of “old-school grandmas.” Everything about her was grandmotherly. She went to the beauty parlor to get her hair permed once a week in tight lavender-tinged pin curls, and she never wore a pair of pants. All her furniture had crocheted lace doilies on the armrests and headrests, and she was a great believer in perfumed sachets in a bureau drawer. She owned a deviled egg plate with iridescent hollows for the eggs, and she always wore hose and sturdy, sensible black or brown shoes. When she went to church or Bingo night she wore a pillbox hat with a tiny net veil. She never hurried anywhere, let alone jogged or did tai chi chuan. She did play a mean game of pinochle though.

There is a part of me that wishes when my time comes, I could just gently and naturally morph into a plump, matronly grandma who bakes icebox cakes with whipped cream frosting, stitches needlepoint pillows, and plays bridge. Instead I suppose I’ll have to go back to school and get an advanced degree, write a screenplay, and train for a triathlon. It all sounds so exhausting.

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