Old People Are Not Cute
In mid-May, the BBC featured an elderly couple spotted at the London club Fabric having tea and tequila before they spent the rest of the night dancing. Along with them, other instances of the elderly doing normal-people things deemed worthy of going #viral have included everything from a 76 year-old woman doing martial arts to old folks dancing to the tune of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off.’
For the longest time, such videos have painted the elderly as objects of idealised adoration.
Instead of seeing them as doing things they’ve enjoyed their entire lives, they are suddenly cute, adorable, precious. When they swear, drink, or smoke, they are elevated to ‘badass,’ as though such behaviour is off-limits to them (in the same way they often are to young children).
The problem with this is that such ‘cuteness’ assumes either rebellion or incompetence.
If a young man or woman were to behave the same way, no one would think it worthy of wonder or admiration.
Such reactions can be harmless when they transpire solely between computer screen and human being. But it’s important also to think about how our responses shape our intuitive regard for the elderly; how they carry over into real life interactions that might not go how we think they’re going.
In healthcare environments, ‘elderspeak’ refers to the type of speech often used by young adults on the elderly. It’s characterised by simpler vocabulary and less complex sentences—baby talk aimed at seniors.
While well-intentioned, such speech can come off as crude and condescending. Author John Leland points out that speaking this way can evoke in the elderly negative images of ageing. This can exacerbate a decrease in their functional health, and make them more aggressive, as well as less receptive to care or cooperation.
The problem with the word ‘cute’ is that this is all it is—a single word. To sum someone up as ‘cute’ is to ignore the complexity of that person’s experience of the world, to assume that every action they perform exists in a vacuum empty of emotion, past experience, or practical considerations.
Our elderly friends, relatives, and acquaintances exist at an age when more than ever, they need to be seen for the dignified individuals they are. Late-life depression is a common occurrence among the elderly. Often, it’s a result of illness or disability. To respond to this with pity and patronage can actually increase the risk of suicide or an earlier death.
Harold and Maude, a film from 1972, features a young man obsessed with suicidal fantasies and a 79 year old lady who has nothing short of a lust for life. While he makes feeble attempts at ending his life, driving his car over a cliff and setting himself on fire, she spends afternoons uprooting city trees and returning them to the forest.
Hidden in the juxtaposition of their conflicting attitudes is something significant: the idea that age is no indicator of one’s capacity to express or enjoy life, and that we should not let it influence our behaviour towards others (elderly or not).
As Youtube user ‘ermonti’ commented on a video of grandmas smoking marijuana for the first time, “Don’t be fooled if your grandparents are nice old people when they’re interacting with you. They’ve had their share of drugs, alcohol and sex during their younger years.”