The Losses of Age
Extending the Human Lifespan

Customs of an Earlier Age

There are not usually many people in the streets of my suburban town. Even on weekends, I can walk two or three blocks in the main shopping area without passing anyone.

That changes on holidays like last Sunday – Mothers Day – and because it was a gloriously sunny spring day, the park, streets, restaurants and outdoor cafes in the central area where the farmers' market will soon open for the season were crowded with families.

Since I am not a mother and my mother is long dead, I was not involved in this holiday. That left me free to observe the several generations eating and drinking together, talking and laughing, telling stories and all with the mothers, young and old, at the center of the celebration.

Except that it wasn't like that. Just as the media regularly reports about how we live now, technology (over)ruled.

There was a woman at an umbrella table turned away from her family so deeply involved in a phone conversation that she seemed not to notice a child tapping her shoulder.

At another table two kids, probably brother and sister, were intent, thumbs a-thumbing on their phone screens, at some kind of game. Or were they texting? One another?

A young couple who might be in love, stood under a tree holding hands while they each peered into cell phones held in their other hands.

When I took a wider view, everywhere I looked people stared at little screens. White-haired old women in the group played with the babies in carriages or stared at the trees in the middle distance.

Being apart together.

I'm not saying this was true for every family on that plaza but it was enough to be disturbing - maybe half of them.

It's been a long time since I've seen so many people all gathered in one place. I rarely go into Portland. I don't like shopping malls. I never attend arena events where there are certain to be crowds.

So until last Sunday, there had not been a recent opportunity for personal anthropological observation of groupus Americanus in the wild and it was uncanny how closely the scene matched those described by the scolds who regularly nag us to put down our electronic gadgets and engage the world around us.

I've used a cell phone for 12 or 15 years, a smart phone for – oh, I'm guessing five or six years.

I keep a calendar on my cell phone and there is, of course, my contact list along with the public transit app, a turn-by-turn map program that talks to me (“turn left in 50 feet”) and a good camera.

There is a Kindle app I downloaded but the screen is too small to read comfortably so I also have a Kindle paperwhite. There is a browser so I can surf the web but I rarely think to do so. Sometimes when I'm out all day, I check your comments but not often.

A friend or two complain that they can't text me. That was true until my newest phone. Now I do have texting capability but don't tell anyone because I despise the implied immediacy of it – that I am supposed to always read and respond on demand. So I don't.

Oh, one more thing: now and then I – ahem, this may be foreign concept to some - talk on the phone. I haven't had a landline for eight years.

There are no games on my phone and no information that could compromise my bank or other money-related accounts if it were lost or stolen.

As you can see, I have never got the knack of making my cell phone the center of my life particularly when I'm away from home. Aside from travel directions – public transit or driving - I think of it as an emergency device to call a tow truck if my car stops working.

In restaurants, I never lay my phone on the table and if it rings in my handbag when I am with others, I let it go to voice mail.

Now that I think about it, smartphones come with so damned much unnecessary stuff installed that maybe I am the only person who has discovered there is a simple record-and-retrieve function for calls and texts on every cell phone. Could it be?

Because when I've met someone for lunch or dinner who sets their phone on the table as they settle in, I am tempted to excuse myself and leave.

Sometimes they make a pre-emptive strike at apology by telling me they are expecting an important call; sometimes not. But always their eyes wander to the screen and they poke it now and then throughout our meal.

The people who do this are thereafter diminished in my estimation of them – even ones I like - which is only fair since they have already made it obvious that I take second place to anyone, anyone at all, on their telephone.

As you can see, I have not made the transition to 21st century manners and etiquette. I am not keeping up with the zeitgeist of the times and while I strongly believe we all have an obligation to adapt to and adopt innovations that are clear improvements for society (the cell phone and internet are obvious examples), I won't be bullied into behavior that discomforts me and my sensibilities.

Just because "everyone does it" - well, you know what mom said about that.

All the above is, of course, an old person's view and if some scorn me for being a relic of an earlier time, I prefer to think of myself in this instance as Penelope Lively described her 80-year-old self in her book Dancing Fish and Ammonites:

“...some observant time traveler, on the edge of things, bearing witness to the customs of another age.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Maureen Browning: Tapioca and Chocolate Pudding


I've had a cell phone for two years now (that long!) and have made three calls (two went unanswered). I've not received a call (but then, I haven't told anyone my number).

I've got to add my beef about the use of "bluetooth" devices, where someone has an ear thing and doesn't even hold a phone in their hands, but is talking at full volume to thin air...and for some people it's still as if they are talking across the miles, their voices are so loud. I've answered their loud comments innumerable times, only to find they are talking to someone else entirely...but it's definitely within my hearing.

I went to a family Christmas party last year and better than half the people there out of the 30 of us had their noses in a cell phone. Once we older people die off they'll literally be able to call in the annual holiday parties, weddings and funerals. I really don't think the liberal use of cell phones is good for society.

I am reminded of what an old boss told me once when I said something about not knowing if I should wait on the customer in the shop or answer the customer on the phone first, and he said, "The one who bothers to drive here always gets first priority." If you are out for lunch with friends the people at the table should like wise get first priority and the cell call go to voice mail. But sadly I don't get to rule the world.


Unless I am expecting an important call from a doctor or someone like that, I do not even interrupt my telephone friends by answering "Call Waiting".

I figure that if the incoming call is important and I don't answer, they will call back.

I will not take the chance of losing the first call accidentally by switching over. I have to show respect to the person to whom I am actually speaking and not the "You have won a free cruise" call that may be on the "Call Waiting" line.

I wonder what Emily Post would have to say on this subject if she were alive today.

The generation gap has never been more noticeable than it is now. Good manners seem to fly out the window as soon as the cell phone rings. And don't get me started on games, texting and even MP3 players which seem to be permanently stuck in everyone's ear. It's as if, by shutting oneself off from the world around them, they think they are more involved in it. I love the new technology, but I like live interaction with people even more.

I so agree with your article Ronni! I think so much of the new technology masquerades as connectedness, but it's a false conceit. Can't hug you, smile at you, or observe it's face for nuances of communication.
I'm hoping it's just a phase, and like with all new fashion, it's time will run out!

My Fone is a TracFone...only
talk and messages available.
It NEVER goes with me anywhere! No "Apps" to take
my attention from the moment.

Those who subscribe to the "Social Networks" and have a phone full of "Apps" with them at all times seem like robots....

Call me old fashioned.... I do not care.... What you think of me is not my business. Being All I Can Be IS My Business....

You speak of not adapting to 21st century manners; I don't think constant cell phone addiction would ever enter into any century's book of manners or etiquette. I'm hoping it is a phase.

When I see someone frantically texting, I want to show them my arthritic thumbs (deformed through no fault of my own) with no joints and tell them that's how theirs will be.

I have and use my semi smart phone daily and I have to agree with you - but in some cases working people are required to have the cell phone with them at all times and to respond/answer any calls/messages. This is in no way to excuse "bad manners" but say that one shoe will not fit all.

I talk to everyone with whom I come in contact. My daughter used to shudder at her mother's gregariousness. Now, she's the same way. We love to talk to people.

That said, I also love my iPhone. I take it every where as it's more my computer than phone. I too make few to no phone calls, but I text, email, google, checkin, and photograph with my iPhone.

I just had a conversation with a college professor who is close to my age, and we both said we wish we could go back in time and have computers and the Internet available to us as we attended college. LIfe would have been so much easier than having to use a manual typewriter for all those papers and dissertations with footnotes.

This MP3 player and telephone in hand --neither is going away I am afraid.

The younger they are the more closely they watch the phone. Walking and texting is so common. And for them it is so easy.

I just got a little MP3 player but I don't think I can walk and chew gum any more so I don't think I can take it out in public ---and showing my age--why would I want to? I would miss out on things--

And I think by the time they have arthritic thumbs it will all be google glasses and bluetooth technology I think.

All you describe is truly sad BUT my phone is now my life line. It was a scary night here in San Diego with so many fires and flames visible from my house. In 2007 when I did evacuate, the phone was my only contact with family and friends and I felt their support via this medium while I was in the shelter. I kept my phone and iPad charged and ready in case I had to leave last night. They helped get through.

I do not use my smart phone much except when waiting for someone to finish something when I am out and about. I agree that use during a meal is rude unless you have a jury out or you are on emergency medical call.

In the 50s my parents complained about my excessive use of the telephone. My lifeline to the 'outside' world!

I imagine their parents complained of the radio - or perhaps the Morse Code.

As time marches on, we have to be comfortable with these changes, and adapt to those that chose to ignore any opportunity to 'in your face' intervention.

I like to drive and explore out of the way places. My cell phone is my insurance. It has no bells, no whistles. It's always with me, but only for use in an emergency.

While I was one of the first to use computers way back in 1980 (remember the Apple 2+) there has been no reason to let them take over my life! I still use them daily and in fact use a Nexus Tablet as a primary source of my library these days.

But others have found other uses for these devices. Perhaps, in time, the novelty will wear off and the trading of information along with communication will evolve once again.

A cell phone (or a smart phone) is one piece of technology that I have never used. My hearing handicap forces me to use a captioned phone and it's a land line gadget. The drawback is that when my computer goes out I lose my phone also, so my friends have tried to get me to get a cell phone so that I will be able to contact someone. I resist because I can't see spending $100 a month for something I may never use.

I do feel some irritation when my granddaughters are visiting and get calls or text messages and leave me sitting like a big lump while I wait for the call to end. My daughter is more considerate and lets voice mail take the calls after glancing at the phone to see if it might be urgent. I do think the coming generation need a lesson in phone manners.

I don't answer the phone when I have a live companion unless its one of my grandkids who usually call only when something is wrong. So I do check to see who is calling or texting. I also use it for long distance and dropped that off my house phone. What I don't like is the sound is not always as good as the landline, I hear better on that.

I have a smart phone, carry it everywhere it's my safety line as well. I live alone, and I live in a remote rural town. That and AAA keep me safe if the car has a problem and I am no longer able to change tires myself.

One son has his constantly at hand, he has eight kids and is on-call for his tech job.

OMG! OMG! Drvs me nts 2!

But it isn't just a different generation. I'm frequently told "a call is coming in" from my old friends when we're on the phone. I think it has more to do with the general lack of civility we're seeing in our society, and plenty of elders have jumped right on that bandwagon.

I have a cell phone and landline and would like to have just one of them.
But living in a rural area
911 may not be reached on cell phone if a problem. Rarely use either one :)
but feel safer with both of them since I am outside gardening when weather permits.
Oh yes, when my grandchildren visit or I am with them
whatever they are using is rarely out of their hand.
Do not like this...

Being instantly available to whoever wants to interrupt whatever I am doing and grab my attention would be my idea of hell. I have two cell phones - one is a smart phone - but they spend 99% of the time in the cupboard and hardly anyone knows their numbers anyway. Even when I do take one somewhere I only switch it on if I need to make a call or need to access messages when I'm away from my computer. If you need to tell me something, send me an email. I'll answer it in my own sweet time (if I feel like it, that is).

Years ago, when I was at a park by the lake with my dog, I found myself followed by a woman talking loudly on her cell phone--this was before smart phones. I'd move, and next thing I knew, there she'd be, yapping away, her dog playing with mine. It was the worst kind of encounter--someone intruding on my lovely space filling it with noise pollution and ignoring me.

Your post today conjures up how I was made to feel several months ago….offended, disgusted, disappointed, etc., etc….

I was thrilled to finally meet up in person and have lunch with a long time friend I rarely get to see since we’ve both retired. She arrived at the restaurant carrying her new toys (her words) to show me…a kindle and iPad.
I don’t recall what it was that I mumbled as she placed them on the table and can only image my facial expression because she quickly put away her toys and we went on to have a delicious lunch and more importantly pleasant face to face conversation.

I rarely use my cell phone but glad to have it and enjoy the convenience of my new toy…a tablet but would never trade either one for real time with a real person.

BTW--Thanks for the chuckle Nancy…I still have my book on Etiquette by Emily Post.

OMG X3! I have a so-called smartphone, but I hate the d#%* thing--fervently! I use it to communicate with my husband when we're away from home separately, for emergencies and occasionally to check in with my volunteer supervisor. I never was much of a phone person anyway, but living one's days and even nights on a tiny electronic device is beyond ridiculous (in my view).

Almost everyone seems to be stumbling blindly through life, eyes glued to a teensy-weensy flickering screen, thumbs working overtime (bet there will be plenty of deformed, arthritic thumbs 20-30 years from now!) while totally oblivious to the real world and the real people in it. Yeah, it's a generational thing, I guess, but from what I read and hear, even some young people have begun to question our societal obsession with this "addictive" technology. In addition, it's helping the 1% get even richer by persuading the rest of us to buy more stuff we don't need.

I have a little clam shell phone that I keep turned off. At home, we still have a land line. Why? Two years ago when the power went off we learned that cell phones don't work when the power and towers are off. We were the only folks in the neighborhood with a phone that worked.

He recently got rid of his smart phone when his company switched to Skype. Saves us well over 100 bucks a month this way.

I think we need to stop being so polite and tell friends and family that calls and texts when they are with us are very not ok. I sure agree with you.

I love this post, Ronni. I, too, really dislike it when someone puts their phone on the table when we are eating out. On the other hand, my iPhone goes with me everywhere as I use it to check public transit schedules, check emails and messages while on the bus, read class assignments for PSU, etc. I've started using texting a little with distant relatives who only use texting or who live out of the country. The technology is a real boon for keeping in touch more frequently with siblings and long distance friends and at 72 am thrilled that I have it.

I love my electronic gadgets, iPad, Galaxy S4 phone and GPS! I can't imagine being without them and their myriad intricacies and miraculous abilities. That said, dissing present company to talk, text, game or read is simply RUDE. I don't hesitate to remind my grandkids, who are really mostly polite, that "ahem, Granny's here. Put away the toys". I do take out my phone immediately when the menu is presented at a restaurant so I can use the very bright light it has to help read in dim restaurant lights. Then it gets silenced and put away, the better to enjoy the company and the food in peace.

I'm 67 and have an iPhone. I use it a lot: phone calls (my only phone), camera, calendar, contacts, texting, reading email away from home, reading newspapers, talking Google maps, listening to downloaded podcasts and music, searching the Internet -- and sometimes invoking Siri (funny and frustrating). When I misplace it (or drop it in the toilet and have to replace it), it's scary. It makes me realize how much of my brain seems to reside there.

Even as I, too, bristle at someone else texting in my presence, I sometimes succumb -- particularly if I see a message from one of my daughters. They no longer pay attention to email or voicemail -- too slow. I sometimes put my phone away so I don't notice, and then they get frantic about me. Nevertheless, I stay away from Facebook -- could spend HOURS there -- and thus I often don't even know that my grandson is playing soccer, for instance. Oh well. And we do talk on the phone. Eventually.

In the old days, I hated Call Waiting on landlines -- who am I, chopped liver? Now it's even worse for smartphone users. When I get a 2nd call, I see choices about how to respond that I can't figure out fast enough (not smart enough?) and often can't read. When I'm spending "face-to-face" time with someone, I turn off my ringer when I remember to do it. Usually after the first time it rings.

My husband and I are both techies -- we met via email at Microsoft -- and he MUST have the latest electronic gadget. I am happy to stick with my "old" devices for as along as possible. I know how they work and whether it's good for my brain or not, I don't like change of the technical sort.

My husband came up with a brilliant solution to preventing my phone from interrupting me (except for leaving it home or losing it): Go to Settings and put the device in Airplane Mode. This will block anything incoming.

Submitting to the need for others' constant contact isn't just an annoying problem for elders. I've read suggestions about keeping your phone out of the bedroom, carrying it in a special pocket of material that prevents transmission, putting all smartphones in a pile in the middle of a table in the restaurant, and the first person who HAS to pick up pays the entire tab.

And, of course, I can always speak up and ask my companion to please put their device away while we're together.
- Cat

My solution to call waiting, when they put you on hold while finding out who's calling, is to hang up. Unless you're the president of a country or a physician waiting for an organ to arrive, the other person isn't that important and can leave a message.

Since I travel about 10,000 miles a year by car by myself, I can't live without my trusty phone by my side - - just in case. I rarely get calls, but I do text, e-mail, and have to check my Facebook regularly. Facebook is also where I let my friends know that I'm still alive while on the road. However, I turn it off and put it away when I'm with friends.

I love that ClaireJean knows who Emily Post was.

Judging by the manners of some of the younger folks I know, I can only assume that these rude teens think Emily Post is an American Legion Hall.

Oh My Goodness! Look at all the comments!
Ronni - you really do have the very best commentators (???). I read you in the morning - and then I come back in the evening just to see what everyone had to say.
Just got our first smart phones recently. I'm probably not smart enough to have one but love YELP when traveling.

I've been using a smart phone since they first become affordable. However, I tailor is use to my own lifestyle. I only use it as an actual telephone when I am not at home. We still use a land line. I don't give out my number, and I don't text. I use it more as a portable computer, equipped with GPS and some games to play while waiting for appointments to begin. I can also check my email, Face Book and Twitter accounts when I'm out of town. The one new thing I've come to use it for, when I wake up at 3am and can't get back to sleep: I watch movies on Netflix as I lie in bed.

In my view, we older people use the smart phone as a helpful tool. Younger people are being used by internet and social media businesspeople to make money.

I started carrying a cell phone to use in case of emergency, since I'm always alone in the car, out walking, etc. I switched to a smartphone (limited usage via StraightTalk) a few years ago, mostly so I could get directions, possibly take phone calls if necessary, and play games when I'm stuck waiting somewhere. I've made/received so few calls on it that I've actually had dreams about desperately needing to call for help and not knowing how to place a call!!

The behavior you describe is inexcusable (in my book). A real person in one's presence should always take precedence over someone on the phone. Good manners never go out of style.

Ronni, I'm bookmarking this post with its myriad marvelous comments! One "but" I note. Last night, in a packed gallery above a Tel Aviv vegan restaurant I watched along with torture victims, the film director, and local aid organization workers a real-life horror documentary, Sound of Torture. And I witnessed how cellphones are lifelines between rescuers and captive-hostages. Link to the trailer of this prize-winning film:

My experience has been that it is the elders who invite their phones to have lunch/dinner with us as they are expecting an "important" call.

When I lunch with granddaughter and her friends, under "Grandma's
Rules", they are obligated to shut off their devices and actually live-talk.
I've often reflected it's a shame I can't impose Grandma's Rules on my elder friends.

I come secondary to their virtual world.


Okay, late to chime in but...I recently read an article about thugs stealing iphones from others. One woman was killed because she resisted; the advice was "let it go!" There was another young lady who resisted, and "just" got beaten badly.

I also read about a group of friends that, when out to eat together, all put their cellphones in a pile in the center of the table. First one to check their phone has to pay the bill!

Had this technology been available when I was younger, I am sure I'd have been as attached to my cell as the youth of today. And the safety factor cannot be under-estimated. On the other hand, there's a time & place for it, and that is NOT when you are having face-to-face time.

Humans are like children.

The latest new thing that comes along is universally embraced -- until the next shiny object grabs everyone's attention.

Our time today is but a bump in the road: it too shall pass. I can almost hear it now, from my future descendents,

"You actually had to CARRY something around!?

"And everybody had to remember a NUMBER?"

This to Darlene: you don't have to pay $100 a month for cell phone usage. You can just buy x number of minutes; this is the least expensive way.

My cell is used mainly for emergencies, and I am glad to have it especially when out with my mom.

It's off and in my purse until needed.

To me, putting a phone on a table when eating out is just plain rude.

It's like saying "this device has priority over our time together."

There are fines here for driving while calling or texting.

Last night coming home on the bus from downtown, I looked around.

Almost everyone was staring at a phone. One woman was so into her cell, she missed her stop.

I love my tablet and cell phone for what they can do, however I prefer to live in the real world rather than on a tiny screen.

I keep wondering how teens and younger can afford to buy and replace these expensive phones.

As with every change in society's norms, there are those who adapt with civility and those who don't. I read Emily Post aloud to my mother for distraction, as she drove us on a long trip from DC to Maine, in 1956. We were preparing for an overseas diplomatic posting my father had just received. Back then, there were those who cared to learn and follow Emily's guidance, and those who did not. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I've noticed it here too - including people walking around with their eyes glued to a screen. But I wonder why bother going to a restaurant for a meal when you're just viewing a screen the whole time. I like to look around at what's happening, or you know, talk to my family/friends.

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