Behavior: The Old in the Country of the Young

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EDWARD ALBEE once wrote a play about a middle-aged couple who, before putting Grandma permanently in the sandbox with a toy shovel, gave her a nice place to live under the stove, with an Army blanket and her very own dish. The play contains more truth than allegory. One of the poignant trends of U.S. life is the gradual devaluation of older people, along with their spectacular growth in numbers. Twenty million Americans are 65 or over. They have also increased proportionately, from 2.5% of the nation's population in 1850 to 10% today.

While the subculture of youth has been examined, psychoanalyzed, photographed, deplored and envied, few have wanted even to admit the existence of a subculture of the aged, with its implications of segregation and alienation. Strangely enough, the aged have a lot in common with youth: they are largely unemployed, introspective and often depressed; their bodies and psyches are in the process of change, and they are heavy users of drugs. If they want to marry, their families tend to disapprove. Both groups are obsessed with time. Youth, though, figures its passage from birth; the aged calculate backward from their death day. They sometimes shorten the wait: the suicide rate among elderly men is far higher than that of any other age group.

The two subcultures seldom intersect, for the young largely ignore the old or treat them with what Novelist Saul Bellow calls "a kind of totalitarian cruelty, like Hitler's attitude toward Jews." It is as though the aged were an alien race to which the young will never belong. Indeed, there is a distinct discrimination against the old that has been called ageism. In its simplest form, says Psychiatrist Robert Butler of Washington, B.C., ageism is just "not wanting to have all these ugly old people around." Butler believes that in 25 or 30 years, ageism will be a problem equal to racism.

We have time to grow old — the air is full of our cries.

— Samuel Beckett

It is not just cruelty and indifference that cause ageism and underscore the obsolescence of the old. It is also the nature of modern Western culture. In some societies, explains Anthropologist Margaret Mead, "the past of the adults is the future of each new generation," and therefore is taught and respected. Thus, primitive families stay together and cherish their elders. But in the modern U.S., family units are small, the generations live apart, and social changes are so rapid that to learn about the past is considered irrelevant. In this situation, new in history, says Miss Mead, the aged are "a strangely isolated generation," the carriers of a dying culture. Ironically, millions of these shunted-aside old people are remarkably able: medicine has kept them young at the same time that technology has made them obsolete.

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