The elderly contain multitudes. For every kindly old neighbor woman with a poofy teacup dog, there’s a 77-year-old Dick Cheney appearing on Fox News to tell us that the American government isn’t torturing people enough these days. Cheney has long been a skidmark on the underwear of democracy, but it matters that he is, as writer David Roth puts it, “medically incapable of dying” — because if he were dead, he wouldn’t be able to spout this shit. It matters that Trump, despite surviving on Big Macs and hairspray fumes, was healthy enough to become president, and that Henry Kissinger won’t kiss off to hell already.
The U.S. is getting older (the number of people over 65 will double by 2050), these people are living longer, and we’re therefore at substantial risk of turning into a nation of cantankerous, selfish, mean old assholes.
Nursing and retirement homes, if you didn’t know, are apparently rife with senior dickishness, from karaoke fistfights to cafeteria cliques and “gossip and cruelty” at social events. Residents invade one another’s privacy and engage in sexual harassment. Formerly out LGBTQ individuals retreat back into the closet to avoid becoming targets of abuse. As many as 20 percent of the people in these communities have been bullied by their peers. A fair amount of that can be chalked up to dementia and mood disorders, which can prompt rude or antisocial behavior. But let’s be honest: a lot of old folks just decide they’ve reached a point at which they don’t really care what anyone else thinks or feels. They get loudly racist or sexist at Thanksgiving, take credit for winning wars they didn’t fight in, and know exactly what’s wrong with kids today. They’ll also try to hurt your dog if they think it’s going to poop somewhere unacceptable!
Too often, we give old jerks a pass because, well, they’re old: On the one hand, they’re deteriorating, and on the other, they grew up with rather different cultural norms. In an ideal society, younger generations wouldn’t ignore their retrograde crap but challenge it in the hopes of changing their minds. But considering how rare that is, I’m pretty worried I’ll be a real ornery bastard by the time I die — especially after my knees go bad. Hell, my own grandma’s idea of fun was grabbing away my little sister’s favorite doll so that she started crying.
The great social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, in her recent book Natural Causes, argues convincingly against a “wellness industry” invested in hypervigilant medical routines that do more harm than good and slow, agonizing deaths in hospitals as opposed to comfortable palliative care in the home. What she doesn’t mention is that a life contingent on spending a third of it at the doctor’s office is likely to leave you bitter and obnoxious in other settings. Why bother behaving if you’re pained and miserable?
Something tells me there’s no easy solution to judgmental crones telling mothers they’re too young to have a baby and teen girls that they dress like “prostitutes,” or contemptible dudes in electric wheelchairs who cut the cruise buffet line to take just about every hot dog from the serving tray. (Seriously, you old bats have a serious problem with the line-cutting.) And I’m a complete loss as to how we can get you to stop trading STDs, because it seems nobody past the age of 40 has even heard of condoms. Is that another thing you pretend to forget when it suits you? At any rate, I’m sure the genital rashes are contributing to your overall surliness. Oh, and given the way wealth inequality is mounting, the tenuousness of Social Security, and millennials’ inability to save for retirement, we can expect to be quite the bunch of stingy misers as well.
Against all odds, some nice people will remain nice as they grow wrinkled, stooped, and infirm. It bears repeating, meanwhile, that the worst old creeps were never good people. Still, we should prepare to do the work of not gradually succumbing to assholery as we rack up the decades. I’m barely politically correct in 2018, so it’s going to take some Herculean effort to remain more or less woke in 2048. Maybe the only honorable path is to find a hermitage on some remote beach, never weigh in on any public issue, and make ends meet by whittling tobacco pipes for fellow hermits. (Or assembling vaporizers shaped like pipes? I don’t know, man.) The few who get that kind of sunset will be the lucky ones — the rest of us will be crammed into crowded facilities where we’ll beat each other with canes to get a turn using the virtual reality youth simulator. Unless we’ve reached the stage where they’re dosing us with cannabis oils. That would be chill.