Superficial Assumptions About Old People

I sometimes experience dismay when young people are surprised that I know how to use a computer, travel alone, or do household repairs. I have been doing all those things for decades and am not ready to stop doing them yet. The assumptions some people make shouldn’t surprise me, but they do. I am fully aware that they have learned to make those assumptions about old people because of the media they consume, but the misperceptions still grate when they come up against my sense of self.

Road Sign by Graham Turner for the Guardian

The hearings before the US House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees on Wednesday have made it abundantly clear that we humans are preoccupied with superficial appearances. The first reactions from many media people criticized how Robert Mueller expressed himself, and not the material he presented. I was so disgusted by the initial comments from television hosts on a couple of channels that I turned the TV off.

When I had watched Robert Mueller’s testimony at the hearings, I was surprised by the rapid-fire questioning, especially during the hearing in the morning. The questions came at him thick and fast, often buried in complex and compound sentences, from people with a variety of accents. Then, because of the constraints on the questioners, Mueller was not given sufficient time for reflection. Nor was he given time to check the accuracy of the quotations from his report.

Adding to these circumstantial shortcomings was that a large number of members of the press were placed between Mueller and the members of Congress. The journalists frequently moved about and sometimes stood between him and the person questioning him. It’s hard to see how anyone could concentrate under those circumstances, let alone remember details from a 448-page report.

Purple-Haired Crazy Granny from BobbieO via Huffington Post

Subsequently, I saw on TV very little reflection on the environment in which the questions were asked and answered. Instead, I saw people dismayed by the ways in which a cautious man was hesitating. It seems as though the expectations of the television commentators far exceeded what might have been predicted. What bothered me most, though, was that appearances clearly mattered far more than substance. It seems we have all been so immersed in visual language that people now value it more highly than written or oral languages. We don’t care what you know or how much you have learned, we only care that you look good doing it. For that, it helps to be young.

Heaven help you if you get old and grey, or hard of hearing, or slow to respond. We have been taught by TV and films to interpret those characteristics as representative of a lack of ability, a limited intelligence, and social embarrassment. After all, that’s the media shorthand, and we love shorthand.

Cranky Old People via Cracked

Similarly, when it comes to our representatives, what we really want are fast-talking back-slappers with familiar faces. The more familiar, the better. It doesn’t matter much what they are famous for; in fact, they could be famous for doing awful things. We don’t really care. We will vote for people we’ve seen on TV often and whom we think we would like if they dropped by. I don’t know what it will take for us to elect thoughtful people who value research, but I do know that television is unlikely to bring them to us unless, of course, they also happen to be youthful cheery back-slappers.

In the meantime, assumptions about older people create an environment in which senior citizens become devalued. More significantly, it means that we may be unable to overcome the impression that the older we look the less we should be heard.


  1. You are maybe exaggerating a bit, but there is a lot of ageism around and not many noticing it. We older people should have a lot of political power if we choose to use it. There are a lot of us, and we vote. Another point you make relates to the modern distrust of experts and the need to simplify everything, and we know the more you simplify something, the more inaccurate it is.

  2. I was appalled when I first heard a news person describe Robert Mueller as older and most probably hard of hearing. Actually I thought that I had misunderstood the newscaster.
    I agree with your descriptions of the scene and I am proud of Mueller for managing in such an outstanding manner. We may be gray but we are not dumbed down as so much is nowadays.

    • I saw a news person get really upset and she blamed Mueller’s advisors for not anticipating how his age-related shortcomings would come across. I was furious. It was all about the image, not the research.

      • It seems to me that age was venerated not so long ago and elders were respected for their accumulated knowledge. However Respect seems to have been lost along the way.
        Following all the detritus Mueller had to follow, his report is amazing.

        • Some ethnic peoples still venerate their elders but ours, sadly, isn’t one of them. Some token respect still lingers, such as giving up seats on public transit to elders, but when it comes to listening the respect is not there.

  3. It’s an odd sensation to become invisible and lose credibility due to aging. I don’t have a solution, but to just keep showing up, being capable and articulate, like you’re doing.

    • It really is an odd sensation. The hardest part of retiring from work is losing the respect I used to have from doing it. Now, I occasionally see surprise in people’s eyes when they realize I once had a useful career.

      • That makes a lot of sense; the loss of respect we have had from our professions. So little external appreciation as we age. It seems pretty important to be secure in ourselves of our inherent worth since society at large is rarely going to validate that as we age.

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