Conventional wisdom tells us that old people are and want to be very like young people. Having conversations with older people, however, quickly reveals how rarely this is true.
Consider, for example, the old man who lived in the house on the corner of your street when you were a child. I knew this man well. I took care of him for a half a dozen years before he died.
We all know the routine.
As the end of the school day drew near, he would take up his position on the porch. Once there, he watched, listened and waited. At last, you and your friends came down the street. You looked for him, but didn’t see him, so you decided to cut the corner. The old man was up and out of his chair in an instant, “Get off my lawn you damn kids!” You ran and pretended to be afraid. His duty done for the day, the old man on the corner retreated to the comfort of his recliner and the remote control.
On a superficial level, this is a mundane recollection about a “grumpy old man.” But there is more to this story, much more. Through it we can glimpse the mind of a man who has left adulthood behind. Clearly, few adults would be willing to yell at elementary school students in this way. The fixed and unyielding responsibilities imposed by jobs, mortgages, car payments and college funds make adults wary of offending people unnecessarily.
The old man on the corner is different from his adult neighbors because he has cast aside the pretense of politeness. He has a pension, his house is paid for, the kids are grown, and the Buick in the driveway will last him for the rest of his life.
Adults suppose that the burdens and unhappiness of old age have made him grouchy. In fact, his old age has set him free from the shackles of adulthood. Pop culture phenomena that leverage this feature of elderhood include Betty White’s appearance on SNL and the televisions network comedy “*%#&!@$# My Dad Says.”
One of most important ( and most overlooked) benefits of outgrowing adulthood lies in the capacity of elderhood to grant people permission to be their authentic, grouchy, irascible selves.
Old people don’t have to be nice and polite and unobtrusive, old people can let their freak flag fly.