ELDER MUSIC: Even More Classical Gas
“About” Taking a Day Off

A Surprising Media Respect For an Elder

Ageist language isn't confined to such obvious demeaning labels as geezer, coot, biddy, etc. - or to “elderspeak,” the belittling forms of address such a “dearie,” and “sweetie” or speaking to old people in a loud, slow voice.

Much more common is the offhand, everyday assumption among the media that old is always bad. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon use age jokes so frequently that I don't often watch their monologues anymore.

It's ubiquitous among comedians of all types and genders – almost all of them include ageist jokes in their routines.

Over the course of his two terms, Barack Obama has proved that had he not gone into politics, he might have made a pretty good living as a standup comic.

He was in impeccable form Saturday night as the main attraction at his final White House Correspondents Dinner. Great funny zingers at all the traditional media and politics targets with the timing of a professional comic, as we have come to expect from him.

However. When Obama was barely three minutes into his 34-minute routine, these self-mocking age jokes turned up:

”Eight years ago, I was a young man, full of idealism and vigor, and look at me now. (Laughter) I am gray and grizzled, just counting down the days ’til my death panel.(Laughter and applause)

“Hillary once questioned whether I’d be ready for a 3AM phone call — now I’m awake anyway because I’ve got to go to the bathroom. (Laughter and applause.”

The same old tired "humor" ensuring that the universal assumption old people lose all their faculties will continue. When the president, who would never malign an ethnic group, religion or women, turns being old into a hoary old stereotype for a cheap laugh, what chance is there of ever gaining respect for old people.

Not infrequently, the insult takes the form of the word “still” when a writer tells readers, for example, how amazing it is that John Smith, age 75, still walks the dog every day and cooks his own meals.

In fact, you can pretty well assume that the writer of any story about a person older than 70 or so – no matter what the focus of the story is - will reinforce the stereotype of infirmity by being amazed he or she can, for example, “still” get out of a chair unaided.

So it is shocking when a reporter has an obvious opportunity to throw in a couple of “still statements” to infantilize an old person but instead takes a higher road.

Last week, in The New York Times, Sarah Wildman did that. It was a feature story about Justus (pronounced YOO-stice) Rosenberg who, she explains, is probably “the last remaining member of an extralegal team” who helped Jewish cultural figures and anti-fascist intellectuals in Vichy France flee the Nazis in the early 1940s.

It's an exciting and amazing tale that is probably the best news story I read last week. Most impressive, particularly given the subject of my daily chronicles here, is the regard and respect Ms. Wildman pays Rosenberg. Take a listen:

”Officially, Dr. Rosenberg, who turned 95 in January, retired from teaching 20 years ago. Retirement didn't suit him.”

Wildman ignores every opportunity a lesser writer would take to tell us how “spry” or “feisty” Rosenberg is.

“'I think my life,' Dr. Rosenberg mused on a frigid February afternoon in the kitchen of his Rhinebeck, N.Y. home, 'as what the French call concours de circonstances – a confluence of circumstances.'”

Later in the story,

”'Have I mentioned it to you yet?' asked Dr. Rosenberg, picking up the narrative the next day as he drove from Bard's campus to his home in Rhinebeck.'”


”Two years ago he and his wife of 20 years, Karin, started the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation to fund efforts fighting hate and anti-Semitism.”

Sarah Wildman reports his age, tells us he teaches and drives, suggests he knows his way around a kitchen, can recall a conversation from the day before and lets us know in passing that he got married at age 75 – all without remarking that any of it is surprising at his age.

Hallelujah. Sarah Wildman allows Justus Rosenberg to be just a person - as if he were 30 or 40 or 50 years old - and that is exceptional in as ageist a world as ours so we should take note when it happens.

If the media followed Ms. Wildman's lead, we would not need to notice and instead concentrate on what is a fantastic story, well told. It's titled “The Professor has a Daring Past” and you can read it at The New York Times. I recommend it.


I read the whole article. Very enlightening. Decided to stop worrying about that 5-10 pounds that I wish wasn't hanging on. I sag enough already and have no desire to pursue
any surgical remedies.

To paraphrase an old song--If I am not the woman I love, I'll love the woman I am.

Estelle again.

You probably wonder what my comment had to do with the article. The first sentence referred to the article which was fascinating.

The rest of the comment referred to another article in that issue that I clicked on about
weight which I found interesting. In my defense, I didn't goof because I'm old, I goofed because I only got about 3 hours sleep last night. Stayed up late reading and had to get up early for an early appointment.

I too loved Obama's farewell gig with the press corps, and cringed a little at the agist humor, but the rest of it was so good I forgave him. Almost. Especially considering who might be there next year, if the gods aren't kind.

Good quote, Estelle.

And I do like the writing of Sarah W., very much.

I believe, at least for the American public generally, and Europeans, from which we brought our culture's goals, ideals, etc., that at this time we'd do well to reexamine how, when and whether we think, before ageism is able to be addressed.

Of utmost importance to any society is the need and dependence upon the media, who, for the most part these days, stink. I do know of some good sites to read, but also read the more mainstream press. Do you notice how a person is often defined by his title, or worth (academically or financially), or age (millenials, GenXers, old, etc) such as "...the billionaire Mr...." and immediately we envision that he must be brilliant and one to trust in problem-solving. We've gotten so used to these short-cut descriptions that seldom does one ask nor get further depth. So the reporters and the readers live comfortably with presumptions and assumptions. And some of those are about elders.

Ironically, I visited two doctors last week with my husband, one primary and another in neurology. Both said, repeatedly, that "old people fall often," "old people don't recover as well," and "this is confusing for old people." At the end of a long day, I focused my saber tongue and let them have it - knowing they were responsible for over-medicating and under-supervising an otherwise healthy man. Age was not the cause.

Your attention to this is exemplary, Ronni - thank you. And I want to mention that last week's articles and comments are now being read, relished and appreciated.

It is refreshing when a story about an elder isn't agog at the thought he or she can still do stuff. But I think the way people speak about elders simply reflects widespread cultural beliefs. Even elders themselves believe this, and much of it reflects our actual experiences as we get older.

I do think that there is a vast untapped power in our aging population. We do vote; we should get more respect from lawmakers. I think we often aren't claiming our rights. I also think that we in the US do not automatically accord elders respect as some cultures do. However, I wonder if I really would want that for myself?

I am not sure why Prez O would make out that he is so old. He's not. He has a lot of life yet to live.

So we know such writing can be done. And it probably did not even challenge Ms. Wildman to write this elegant piece while avoiding cheap references to how remarkable this all is at the age of 95. Rosenberg's life story itself is remarkable, and his framing of the events of that life as "a confluence of circumstances" sums it up. A great read!

Thank you for this start to the week, Ronni.

Ageist comments roll off me like the proverbial duck's back. Who cares. We will all grow older and die, so what.

Irresistible tangent: This morning is the day a month the very sweet woman--30 years in this country and still won't/can't learn English--spends the morning cleaning my house for me. (A luxury I allow myself because of my age.) We are friendly. I practice my Spanish, which is awful, but at least existent.

This morning she mentioned that she and her husband went to the horse races yesterday, a rarity, and had fun there. He won $90! Then she said, laughing, that they'd seen something very funny: dos viejitas--"¡mas vieja que tu, Kate!"--who were having a beer together at the races. She thought it was hilarious, specifically because they were so old. Imagine! Old people! Still drinking beer!

I was gobsmacked. And, in my execrable Spanish, did my best to say why I didn't think there was anything remarkable about it. I even told her that I dye my hair because I find fewer people call me "sweetie" and "dear" when I don't have gray hair, and that it is important--sometimes crucial--to be seen as a serious person, regardless of age. I'm pretty sure it went in one of her orejas and out the other. She's a nice woman, and I'm very fond of her, but . . . sigh.

No doubt--if she'd been able to understand him--she would've found Obama's age jokes hysterical.

My apologies in advance -- I know it was a typo, but I laughed out loud, at work, at your old POOPLE reference in the first paragraph. It begs for a crappy Depends joke.

You're right, Cheri - that's really funny. But DAMN! I read through this post three times before I published it. How could I have missed that (and a couple of other things)? Maybe because it was 4:30AM and I hadn't had any coffee yet.

I've fixed it now...

Oh, cut Mr. Obama some slack here. That's what I'm doing. What I thought about when he mentioned the "death panels" was Sarah Palin & laughed at that. So he said he's awake at 3am to use the BR........big deal. It's funny & not peculiar to old folks only. You will notice however that he didn't go after the "white-haired" Bernie which I really would have been annoyed with. Not once did he mention what everyone else is thinking..........Bernie's too old to be prez. Maybe, maybe not.

If Mr. Obama is looking for something to do next, it should be stand-up:) I think he's hilarious & made Larry look like a rookie! Dee

"Hon" short for honey is another one like "dearie" and "sweetie" that people use- even before they know your name- to make us more
agreeable and comply with the whatever system they are trying to
work us into. Usually front desk workers in medical offices who want you to move on quickly.
Thanks for this post. I especially liked the information about Rosenburg- So much work to do to leave the world a place that I
want my young friends to live in. Makes me want to get on with it.

Fantastic article.

Would love to be in Dr. Rosenberg's class.

When the word "still," is used to describe the action of an elder, it makes me believe that said user is limiting him or herself in every single way.

Some people can't handle the idea that we are all different in terms of capabilities. Some people use a number to box themselves and others into "act your age," or "at your age, you should be doing blah blah" comments.

We are clearly kicking down the doors.

We are ripping apart the "so-called, cone-headed rules"of how people should age.

And I like it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the President's very funny, very polished (what timing!) speech at the White House Dinner. Yes, I gulped when I heard the ageist comments, but I forgave him immediately because he is, after all, one of the finest presidents you have had or will ever have. (I'm Canadian, looking at all of the current political nastiness over the invisible fence). I'm actually surprised that no one checked that speech before he presented it. I have written frequently about the use of "dearie", and sweetie" when addressing older people. I use "still" in my blog name, but not in a derogatory sense, and no offense intended!

When I see a TV report showing a group of seniors dancing to a rock beat or see a 94 year-old strapped to the back of a skydiving instructor like a sack of old potatoes, I cringe.
Yes, we know we have our shortcomings due to our age, but why do I have to be made an object of wonder every time I do something that everybody else takes for granted.

I'm with Dianne and Dee on this one. I loved Mr Obama's stand-up routine. He is the classiest and most intelligent President we've had in seemingly forever and I will sorely miss him even though I'm looking forward to having our first woman leader of the free world in the White House. Mr O's humor was self-deprecating and that's how I draw the line. I frequently make joking self-deprecating references to the perils of old age and I can't imagine having to restrain myself. Ageist insults by younger people, like the Fallon and Colbert stuff, using us as the butt of the joke are different.

Don't call me "cute"! Can't tell you how often perfect strangers look at my husband and me—in a restaurant, sitting on a park bench, riding the bus, and make some remark involving our being "cute." They obviously have no idea how insulting this is.

here's another example of a implied negativity re growing older made to sound like a compliment. I was being interviewed by an insurance investigator re a fall I had at the Orlando airport a couple weeks ago he"I see you're you're a young 78" followed a few minutes later by, "sometimes, we just fall down." What could he have possibly meant? If I wasn't me, I can see someone being intimidated by that rhetoric.
awareness of this discriminatory language of ageism needs to be recognized and called out, advertisers are a big contributor to this nasty trend, older folks are lumped together and marketed to as a incompetent and dependent population. Depends, Burial insurance, "What should we do with Mom?" pills for everything and "I've fallen and I can't get up", not to mention, not being able to get it up. We are individuals, no matter what our age and need to make this fact heard, loud and clear

Amen, Marcia.

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