A long time ago on this blog, 2006 to be precise, I wrote about the difficulty I'd had in those days with the word “retired.” Here is part of what I wrote:
”I choke on the word 'retired.' On the rare occasions I have used this term to describe myself, I’ve seen the same kind of veil come over the eyes of people who ask what I do as I saw on the faces of young interviewers (before I gave up looking for full-time work)...
“Now, when I use the word, it is amusing (or would be if it weren’t so infuriating) to watch the other person searching for a way to politely extricate him- or herself from our conversation.”
The problem with the word is that to be retired in the United States is to be perceived as irrelevant, uninteresting and quite possibly stupid. Even the late, eminent geriatrician, Robert N. Butler, had personal experience with the word being synonymous to others with “over the hill” which at age 80, he definitely was not.
Recently I had cause to choke on another word that in most situations should not provoke that response: hobbies. Actually, it took more than the word alone; it was the lead-in sentence to a list of hobbies that left me feeling gloomy about attitudes toward old people.
”Here are 11 healthy hobbies your aging loved one might want to consider.”
First, there is the tone of condescension, as though an old person doesn't already have his/her own interests. Then there is the dismissive word itself, hobbies, which sounds a lot like the idea is to just fill time until the “aging loved one” kicks the bucket.
Here are the 11 items.
- Creating Art / Doing Crafts
- Playing Games / Cards
- Practicing Yoga
- Caring for a Pet
- Family and Friends
There is nothing wrong with anything on that list except that elders already know about them and each one is much more than a mere pastime. Tens of millions of people, old and young, participate in numbers 3, 4, 8 and 9 for enjoyment and to help keep themselves fit.
Numbers 5 and 6 are among the many ways we have to socialize with others. And I would file 2, 7, 10 and 11 under the category not of hobbies, but of living.
In fact, the only one that could possibly be labeled a hobby is number one. Maybe. In some circumstance. But usually not, I think.
Using the word hobby for any of these is dismissive. But such an attitude is a pattern in regard to elders. Many people, apparently including the writer of this article, think that because you are retired, whatever you do with your time is not valuable or useful.
Really? Tell that to volunteers. To caregivers. To docents. To people who knit, crochet and quilt for the homeless and other charities. And tell that to others who spend their time learning, keeping fit, reading, relaxing, catching up with what they had no time for during their working years - and one more - an important one: "just" being.
Speaking of hobbies, too many people who believe they know a lot about old people and write about them make it their own hobby to exhort old people to do, do, do. God forbid any elder should spend some quiet time with themselves.
Which brings me to an important idea about which TGB reader, Rosemary Woodel, emailed.
She included a link to an essay by Parker J. Palmer, one of the contributors to Krista Tippet's On Being website. It is titled Being More Than Being Useful.
”I work hard at what I do, and I bet you do too. So maybe you need the same reminder I do: while my work is important, it is not a measure of my value or worth,” writes Palmer.
“Who we 'be' is far more important than what we do or how well we do it. That’s why we’re called human beings, not human doings!
“We pay a terrible price if we value our doing over our being. When we have to stop 'doing' — e.g., because of job loss, illness, accident, or the diminishments that can come with age — we lose our sense of worthiness.”
Okay, he's more flip than I would be about his idea but that doesn't make him wrong. He's talking about being centered, accepting of your own self, understanding your intrinsic worth.
The people who who make lists of hobbies for old folks, advise us to walk faster, find new friends and pick something from a list to do have forgotten - or perhaps, because they are usually much younger - have not realized yet that growing old is also an important time to, in addition to everything else, do less - to be.
Growing old is a perfect time to learn or re-learn that we are, each one of us, worthy just by the fact of being here. Being old and retired from the workforce does not diminish that worthiness even if some others think so. We should not allow them to disregard us by assuming we aren't busy enough and need help to figure out how to use our time.