The woman ahead of me at the grocery store was maybe 80 years old. She was white-haired and small, though lively. She fished items out of her cart and chatted with a younger woman as the clerk rang it all in.
She had finally wrestled the air conditioner out of the shed and got it hooked up. The garden was started but she didn’t have high hopes for it this year. She had hosed down the side of her house this morning, but it still looked dull. Might be time for new siding, after all.
Outside, she hefted bags of groceries into her car and drove across the street to gas up. Heading up to the County to see her sisters, I thought I’d heard her say. It was going to be a full day.
I have no idea what the woman’s name was. I might call her miss or ma’am if I had to address her directly.
What I wouldn’t call her is elderly.
It’s always a dilemma when writing news. A purse was snatched from a woman in a parking lot. Witnesses say she was gray-haired and somewhat wrinkled. Do you go ahead and call her an elderly victim and make that crime story sparkle?
It’s a judgment call. You could say that anybody over 65 qualifies. They get all those AARP benefits, after all, and they can start cashing those Social Security checks. Isn’t that all the criteria you need?
Or you could consult your dictionary, which will advise you that the word elderly applies to one who exhibits the characteristics of an older person. You know: slow, brittle, maybe hard of hearing.
The problem is this: In my experience, there are more 35-year-olds who fit that description than those of a more advanced age.
You know the type. They sit on the couch all day long doing nothing. They creak and groan when they have to move much because the indolent lifestyle has caused their muscles to atrophy. You can yell at them to go out and get a job all you want. It’s like they don’t hear you at all.
According to both Funk and Wagnalls, your 38-year-old slackass roommate is elderly.
Meanwhile, take a look at those people who were born before television. They’re out there mowing their lawns, painting their porches, volunteering all over the place just so they won’t get bored.
You cry like a baby when you need to have your teeth cleaned. The older folks, on the other hand, have had mouths full of teeth entirely replaced. They’ve had old hips ripped out, new hips put in. They get poked and prodded every other week and you never hear them bitch about it.
Hard times? You want them to talk about hard times, ask them about the old days, when they had to walk 10 miles and fight three bears just to get to school.
Old people are tough, we all know that. Sass them too much and you’re likely to get your knuckles rapped or your buttocks kicked. When an older person thrashes a younger one, it’s called a whooping. That’s why we all just love it when we hear news of some punk getting beat down by a grandmother with a brick in her knitting bag or some older man who fought in three wars and won’t take any lip from any whippersnapper.
And yet as reporters, we throw the E word around all the time. An elderly man was hurt in a car wreck. An elderly woman reported a naked man streaked through her backyard and she couldn’t make him come back. A local couple was applauded for their work with neighborhood cleanup in spite of being elderly.
As reporters, we typically verify our use of the term through a long-practiced journalistic technique. We yell across the newsroom to a colleague.
“Says here the lady who won all that dough at bingo is 70 years old,” one reporter will say to another. “Does that make her elderly?”
“Sure does,” responds the helpful colleague. “Might even make her elderly and a half.”
Which, I have come to decide, is entirely bogus. Because the term elderly has come to be equated with a host of unflattering adjectives. Frail, for example. Helpless; feeble.
The way I see it, if a person is out raking her own lawn, shopping for her own groceries, remembering everybody’s birthday over the course of a half-century, that person does not merit the term. The majority of older people, I think we can agree, somewhat shame us in terms of things like work ethic, gratitude and making delicious pies.
My own mother, born shortly after the Civil War, does a day’s worth of work before I get out of bed each day. Her older sisters still clear their own driveways in winter and will punch you in the jaw if you try to take their shovels away.
Meanwhile, I have this brother Steve, whom I will not name for fear of embarrassing him, who whines like a baby if he can only get nine holes of golf in instead of 18.
Older people have got it going on, even the crotchety ones who will chase you with a broom if you walk across their lawns. Even the cranky ones who screech at you to get a trim, hippie, if you have hair down over your ears.
Cheers to you older folks who make the young look like thin-skinned weaklings. In your honor, I officially retire the term “elderly” from my private lexicon.
Now if you all could learn to turn off your blinkers once you hit the highway, everything would be just great.
I’d offer more about the blinker problem but, what. You think I want a whooping?
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. He loves to get e-mail from “non elderly” folks at firstname.lastname@example.org.