Ageism is alive and well and invades even our loving families. Some perverse need causes the most generous of people to search for signs of physical and mental decline in older people, and we must fight against it.
Image is important — as I found out during a recent road trip to visit four generations of extended family — so I have some suggestions that may prove helpful for those who care about the way they are perceived:
• Never stay more than 10 days, as you can conceal at least some of your major weaknesses that long.
• Do not fall asleep and drool while sitting in a chair in the family room in the presence of anyone other than your spouse, who is used to it. But if you do, readily admit it. Denial makes you look weak.
• Do not insist on watching the 6:30 network news, and do not mention in conversation any of the items advertised thereon.
• Do not use any of the slang words or phrases used by your family, particularly the grandchildren. It will only make them stop using them.
• If you hear yourself asking, "Have I told you …, " stop — because you have. Betty and I have worked out a helpful signal. When one of us starts on an old joke or anecdote, we stop when the other interrupts with the question "When was that?"
• Do not talk about your health problems except in response to direct questions.
• Tell no jokes relating to memory loss or sex. No one wants to even think about your having sex.
• Avoid references to yourself as being old. Everybody knows it and would prefer not being reminded.
• Check zippers before leaving the bathroom.
• If you have any residual physical competence, show it off. If jogging or walking, go out full steam from the start (save the collapse until you are around the corner and they can no longer see you).
• Keep sharp on one or two tricks — for instance, the ability to cut a deck of cards with one hand, or flip and catch a series of coins that you line up on your forearm.
Now, a word for those who couldn't care less about image: Ignore all of the above.
So what if you fall asleep watching the news? If you are to wear comfortable clothes, it had better be now. Who should complain if seeing the comb-over in the mirror makes you feel better? What's wrong with taking advantage of the early bird specials and eating dinner at 5 o'clock?
Go have some fun. What the hell, you are in your 80s, your family loves you, warts and all, and you won't be coming their way all that many more times.
Kent Miller is an emeritus professor of psychology at Florida State University. He writes about the challenges of being 80-something. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.