Can Elders Be Cool?

By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

A ridiculous question, if you look at Leonard Cohen. Or Yoko Ono. And what is cool anyway? Well, it’s pretty much about how connected one chooses to be to the zeitgeist of the time, to a sense of where the creative core is erupting, to what is most exciting and fresh in the culture. If that orientation to the world was the way we were, maybe it still is!

Some of that cool was thrust upon us in the music: from the jazz of the 30’s, through the swing and jazz of wartime and the ‘50’s and then Wham, rock and roll hit us. That’s my identifier- the rhythm gateway to something beyond the surface, to some core movement that became universal. Rock was a great unifier. My father, at 60, recognized how good the Beatles “Revolver” is. He hadn’t lost his cool. In Belfast, in 1963, “Love Me Do” was playing all over the city. In a village in central India, where water was supplied by oxen circling a well wheel, “She Loves You” blasted out from a radio somewhere. It was like the world joining hands.

I’m part of an exercise group where I, at 74, am one of the youngest. The selection of music to which we move is great fun – lots of old rock and roll, and country rock, and many lovely old jazzy standards. It helps us to feel energized. And younger. As I see many of my class members humming and moving to the tunes, I realize we’ve ALL had a past that included times of cool. Every “old’ person has a story to tell about times in his or her past. Will I ever have enough opportunity to hear them? Or to tell them!

Can A Vibrant Past Come Alive In the Present?

I’d love to hear more personal stories of what people have done in the times when they felt alive and engaged, and connected to something bigger than themselves. Times when they were in the heart of things. Some of the tales would be too personal to share. But all have lived through interesting times.
Sadly, there are few opportunities to listen to others’ personal histories. Among friends who shared the same eras, there can be great sharing and hilarity. Some families listen to the tales told by seniors. But the sharing doesn’t spread much wider.

Among us are some who retain actual memories of WWII: being a soldier, sailor, airman; being bombed in London or in German cities. There was a lot happening in the post-war era; war brides coming to Canada, large-scale immigration, big engineering projects undertaken in the ‘50’s (such as the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway), women making the move to work outside the home. These were events requiring courage, vision, solidarity, creativity in the people involved.

Apart from wanting to hear more stories, I’d like to learn more about why we in western culture don’t take seriously the weight and the dimensions of the experiences of people who’ve lived through decades of extraordinary events and struggles. What prevents us from investing more time in learning about each other?

Lifting the Veil of Invisibility

It happens sometime, if we’re lucky, that find ourselves in a circumstance where all things lend themselves to some hours of reverie. A warm night, a fire, quiet all around, and stories begin to be told. The elders can come into their own! Or a question is posed that an older person addresses and people around the table begin to really listen.

More often, as we move about in the world – grocery shopping, on the streets, riding on the bus – the glances of others move quickly past us. As humans we employ a very quick labelling process and that happens as the young encounter the old. The face of the Senior, the posture of the Elderly, the voice of the Aged: we are labelled quick as a wink.

Of course, many of us do the same to the Young. We quickly label them based on hair, clothing, how much flesh is exposed, how they move and talk. And don’t really imagine very much interesting about them Of course, I can say, there’s a big difference. I have 55 more years of living than most of them. And it’s been filled with learning and loving and daring and losing and working things out. But the lives of the young are conducted in such an intense way that 10 of their years might be mightily interesting and fascinating even. Why do we ignore them?

And many of us find it difficult to engage naturally and fully with people who live with a very visible handicap. What is that about? The consequence is that whole segments of the society we live in are easily dismissed as uninteresting.

I was exactly the same, even just five years ago – when I was still imagining that I wasn’t one of them – the uninteresting elders.

Realizing how much I had easily dismissed whole groups of people who didn’t seem cool to me, I’ve become interested in what it is that allows us to decide another isn’t worth our time and attention.

Toward an Understanding of the Phenomenon of Invisibility

We are part of a culture consisting of so much stimulation and change that those who are active, who can cause things to happen, who thus have power and money, are magnets to the rest of us who are trying to get a foothold on what seems to be a ladder. The young and the elderly have little to offer, it is thought, in regard to assisting the able-bodied to success.

There are societies in which a reverence for elders is cultivated. Ours isn’t one of them.
Years ago, sitting on a stony beach in White Rock, B.C. with a friend who placed high value on respect for elders we watched a young native person, slowly and carefully guiding a quite elderly man along the water’s edge, helping him sidestep the rocks. My friend pointed this out as something important, to take note of. I did, and I recall it 40 years later. It was the patience as much as the act itself that was so notable. This elder mattered to the younger man.

Being part of this Seniors Exercise group, I am learning that the decades past, in the lives of each individual, are full of interesting and marvelous deeds and adventures. As I get to know them, each has earned a hearing! So many stories to tell. How could I have lumped them together as just old people? They’re funny and generous and full of life. Each deserves respect.

I realized that seniors had been invisible to me when I saw them as a group. A group of old people. I feel some shame at having objectified them, and more forgiveness for people who now do that to me.

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3 Comments

Filed under Rosemary's entries

3 responses to “Can Elders Be Cool?

  1. Hi, Rosemary. I don’t see it as putting down or tuning out a certain group (the elderly, the young). I see it as the practice of the reserve we generally have towards non-intimates, of respect for their privacy. Do they want to be made to tell one of their stories? Something I often do is start by disclosing to them a unusual amount of information about myself. Sometimes this prompts them to open up themselves, more often nothing. But you can’t bully it out of them, like a teacher giving an assignment. In a very real way, you are at the mercy of them being struck by something in the moment and deciding to launch into it. And many aren’t used to putting interesting experiences they’ve had into story form. Stories to be good need a certain amount of development, and most haven’t developed that skill.

  2. Pat Smiley

    Hi, Rosemary:

    The coolest seniors who don’t say, think, or behave in ways that suggest that there was a day that was theirs and it’s long gone. “In my day . . .(when things were clearly better than they are now.” The world changes and some people don’t change with it. I find this as boring in my late 50s as I did when I was in my teens.
    If the older listen to the younger with as much respect as they expect the younger to listen to them, then there is interest on both sides. I’ve seen this so many times.
    The “coolest” adults to the young are those who are themselves. If the old folks like swing music or 50s rock and are clearly enjoying it, then those very self-conscious adolescents will start listening and in the best of spirits enjoy it themselves.

  3. Marilyn Harrison

    Enjoyed the blog. It captures May 20 & 21 and makes me feel proud to be older and not old.

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