Old Folks Set in Their Ways

It's a joke, that headline phrase, isn't it? And not a good one. In fact, it's ageist in its assumption that old people cannot or will not change, and most of all, it is wrong.

That is not to say there aren't plenty of stubborn people in the world, but they come in all ages. And in the case of old people, the nature of ageing makes change a requirement if you are going to navigate these advanced years.

We'll get back to that in a moment but first, what about our life-long habits? Are they necessarily bad? Do people who believe all old folks are “set in their ways” should change things just because they've been doing them for many years? (I'm not talking about smoking cigarettes and other dangerous undertakings.)

The web has only a skimpy amount of useful material on the subject and with a few exceptions they want old people to change. At least one even has a numbered list of instructions on how to get others to adopt your way of doing things.

But consider where we old folks are in life: We have decades of trial and error in pretty much all aspects of our lives along with sometimes cherished habits that over years turned into favored rituals.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend mentioned that she wouldn't want one of those machines makes a single cup of coffee from the insertion of a little pod. Aside from the environmental disaster they cause, she said, she prefers the ritual of a French press.

I'd never thought of it that way, but I now embrace the idea of ritual with my own French press I've been using for going on 40 years. I like that routine first thing in the morning. It feels comfortable and after all this time, it doesn't require thought (if you don't count the recent morning when I measured the coffee into the cup.)

The other thing about coffee is that even after more than 14 years, I have my favorite blend sent from the shop where I bought it in New York City. A bonus was when I figured out that even with shipping costs, it is cheaper than buying coffee where I live now - particularly so when you know you're getting a full pound (16 ounces) rather than the 10 or 12 ounces at the market.

These are good habits to be set in my ways about – they reliably bring me pleasure and I get to do it every morning. How terrific is that and why would I change?

By the time we reach old age, we have made hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions so we have a lot of practice at making good and not-so-good choices to inform new ones that come along.

If, as some say, a portion of young people do change their minds more frequently than old people, it is because they are just starting out. There's a lot to learn about living, much of it through trial and error.

But it is in old age where willingness to make changes becomes crucial to well-being. Linda Breytspraak of the Center on Aging Studies, University of Missouri-Kansas City (quoted at missourifamilies.org/) explains more succinctly than I could:

”The majority of older people are not 'set in their ways and unable to change,'” she writes. “'There is some evidence that older people tend to become more stable in their attitudes, but it is clear that most older people do change.

“'To survive, they must adapt to many events of later life such as retirement, children leaving home, widowhood, moving to new homes, and serious illness.'”

She's right that survival depends on our ability to accommodate our changing circumstances as we grow old.

I've learned a lot about adapting in the past two years since I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In one case, I eat what I consider a terrible high calorie, high fat diet nowadays to help keep my weight up so I don't become frail.

As the chief oncology nurse said to me when I objected, “The cancer will kill you long before the diet will.”

And so I eat a lot of the foods I shunned for most of my life and it has kept on the weight. If I skip even a single meal, I lose a pound or so overnight so I am diligent about eating as I never was when I was younger.

In another bid to have a healthy life for as long as possible in my predicament, I sleep a full night every night. For the past year, I've been using cannabis, an edible or tincture) to help ensure a full six to seven hours if not always eight hours. It works and, cancer notwithstanding, I feel a lot better than all those years I woke after only three or four hours of sleep.

Did I mention recently that I made a new rule? No more climbing ladders. Thanks to chemotherapy, I am shaky on my feet sometimes and I surely don't want a broken hip or back or neck from a fall.

For the same reason, I look down when I walk around my apartment complex so that I don't trip on one of the pine cones that are everywhere.

It is doubtful that we will convince others that being “set in our ways” is not a bad thing and can even be a life saver for old people. But we can embrace our habits and rituals and enjoy them. We spent a lifetime learning these lessons, often the hard way.


Oh yes yes yes. We offer the "experience" card, which may not win many games with the younger set, but it sure has been proven over time. I do remember the younger attitude still, try anything to see if what "those older folks say" is really worth while. Pushing boundaries was their job at their age. It's so nice to sit back and know things and not have to try new things all the time...as a matter of fact, to choose what new things we want to bother to learn. Thus I still don't do Twitter or Pinterest, which many younger friends do.

If I'm "set in my ways" it's only because after years of experience, I've learned which habits and rituals bring me pleasure and comfort. But I don't think of it as an age thing. I've always been more comfortable staying in my "comfort zone" as much as possible. That's just my personality.

I guess I am rather set in my ways about certain things. I have an aversion to most social media, and continue to resist Facebook and the like, for example.

Yet sometimes old-fangled ideas are a boon. I stopped in a CVS during the NYC blackout the other day to get some cold water. This particular CVS has those self check-out machines. I joined the end of the very long line, but was delighted to be ushered to the front when the manager inquired if anyone was paying cash, as one of the machines partially broke-down and would no longer take credit/debit cards. No one in front of me had cash!! I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. My
20-something daughter never carries cash. They just click their phones together or something.

Oh, now, you've hit it! I often chafe when I think of the phrase "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Kind of the same idea as the "set in their ways" gambit. If you want a life, you want to truly be alive as old age asserts itself in so many ways, it is absolutely necessary to learn new ideas, ways of doing, viewpoints. And then too, to be "set in your ways" about certain things only makes sense. People make fun of my 18 year old Honda. But it's still great, I like it, it works just fine, and I just don't care about researching and purchasing a new car, it's not my thing. If we'd all been a little more "set in our ways," we wouldn't now be drowning in a sea of plastic, we'd still be using paper bags shopping baskets, glass mild bottles etc.

Wise words, Ronni. And you’re so right about those single serve coffee machines which are everywhere now. Not only are they an environmental disaster, but I wonder how healthy it is to inject boiling hot water into a plastic capsule. Are we all not ingesting plastic molecules when we use them?

I'm glad you talked about ritual. That's how I feel about my morning latte, which I make from scratch. There are newish things I try and others I reject. I have come to enjoy FB a lot because of the friends I've got, mostly other photographers, artists, writers and naturalists. But I've rejected instagram, twitter etc because I don't choose to be that much on-line.

The biggest change I made was a couple of years ago when I moved from big old farmhouse in the country where I'd lived about 35 years to a small apartment in a retirement community. Eye and brain issues made living in town more appropriate. A challenge I adjusted to gracefully I think. Lots of gratitude that I'm adjustable and have old/new friends.

I agree with all that you say, Ronnie:

About the agist assumption of rigidity. I find my mind more fluid, more adaptable in old age.

About sticking with routines and rituals that have served us well.

I wrote an essay called Ritual and Routine Hold Me Like a Good Mother that you might want to see.

I'll try anything new as long as it works for me. I use a computer because I like to write. I am a terrible typist and making corrections on a conventional typewriter interferes with the work flow.
I switched from film to digital photography because it allows me to be more creative and satisfies my need for immediacy.
Conversely, I have no need for a smart phone. My simple cell phone is all I need. If I need portability I use my tablet.
Sometimes, what is perceived as being "stuck in their ways" is actually just a matter of knowing what is comfortable for them. As Ronnie said, it's something learned through years and years of trial and error.

I confess to being stuck in my ways in one thing. It's my morning ritual. If I have out-of-town guests my morning routine has to be changed and I find myself feeling grumpy.

A really good post per usual. I still use a dish pan to wash dishes. I have no dish washer and no room for one. But that doesn't mean if I had one I wouldn't use it. :-)

My daughter-in-law kept asking me why I stay at home so much nowadays. I used to run all the time ... to work, to child care, to meetings, to grocery stores ... but I never want to go out and about anymore! I answered simply, "Because I don't want to." I don't think she believed me. I quietly explained to her that I loved my alone time and had not had much chance to have it for 60 years.

My joy at nearly age 80 was when my last bookkeeping client retired and I was free to be at home and peacefully alone and without any obligations to anyone but myself. It was that simple. But I still don't think my daughter-in-law quite understands. She grew up in a large, boisterous family. I was an only child in a not very communicative family and spent most of my childhood in my room with my radio and my beloved books. That's all I could dream of when it was time to retire. Sighhhh

Well said, Ronni!

I make coffee with a filter and have since I bought my first Chemex in the early 1970s. No plastic, no electricity, no factory-made dubious liquid. Great coffee.

I also hate having my morning routine changed. I feel so lucky to sleep late, have coffee and breakfast, read the news, and not talk to anyone!

I also love not having any responsibilities to anyone. After long years of taking care of my husband I sometimes find I don't want to take care of anything anymore, including the dishes!

Today I needed this post from you Ronni. As I will be 90 in December and these last years are not going smoothly for some reason your words today snapped me out of my blue funk pi
Thanks for all you do to smooth the road thru old age.
What will we do without you?

Pity party

Thank you for this post, Ronni. What it boils down for me is that each of us needs to feel comfortable in whatever we do, at whatever age. Each of us have a unique personality, unique desires and needs and this can change in different times of our life. What I really appreciated about your post was that, as we get older, we DO make changes - quite a few, actually! Again, thanks!

I love my keurig. I also respect everyone's wish to make coffee the way they want. As to plastic, with the way the world is going, we will be long gone before the plastic does us or me, in.

I like to keep what I like in my life. Yes, we know from years of life what works and what doesn't; however, I am also open to new...show me the way and I will think about it. Sometimes, it's better than my tried and true. That's ok. I can make a choice. Open I guess is my operative word.

I love the iphone. Forget the flip. I love my computer. There are many good changes for us and our senior brains.

I say, go for it. If you want to.


I do have a dishwasher but I use it to store canned goods.

I’ll join in with the members of the morning coffee routine. The cat doesn’t even get fed till I get my coffee brewing.

Interestingly, John Sylvan the man who created the ubiquitous K-cup regrets having done so, and he doesn’t own a Keurig machine either!

The morning coffee ritual. Yes!! Time alone Yes!! I too spend as much time alone at home as possible. I need my friends so I go out with them, but if someone cancels, I'm delighted.

I have a favorite facebook meme--someone lying on the floor with a book and the caption is essentially--I was going to clean house but this book isn't going to read itself.

I think you are right that we oldsters have learned good ways to do things and so we often continue in those ways. But many of us are open to change and have to cope with new circumstances, like I did when my husband of 45 years died. So we keep pushing on. I organize two lunch groups and we go to new restaurants and have good chats, for example.

I think we all have our little rituals and things we do "our way" just because we like them done that way. Sometimes there really are objectively better ways to do things... but a lot of the time it really doesn't make much of a difference. So do whatever makes you happy!

I love the morning coffee routine, too, though first I feed the dog. I long ago settled into a routine of grinding the beans for my one cup of coffee. A couple of years ago I realized that my hands had become weakened to the point that keeping the grinder going was very difficult and painful. So I put the grinder away and started buying ground coffee. Now that's the routine, and I've gotten pretty set in this new way.

Well said Ronnie. And also Rebecca. The greatest benefit of age is experience and perspective. I love doing what I want to, having found out by now what that is. And being able to try something new that I want to.

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