Beyond Small Talk

How to Talk to an Old Person

It helps to think of them as a younger person

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

WWhen asked to write this piece, I thought it was about talking to people older than I am: people in their eighties or nineties. Then the realization landed with a thud: the old person — that’s me.

But I don’t feel old. In my seventies, I feel like I’m 55. When I was 40, I felt like I was 28. You always feel younger inside than your chronological age, but both ages are moving upward, in tandem. The “I” — the interior being that you identify as you — is ageless. The body—that’s another matter.

You know you’re old the first time someone stands to give you their seat — on the subway, on a bus, in a crowded waiting room. I was shocked when it happened. I don’t look frail, do I? I don’t even have gray hair. I still like sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But there’s no rationalizing now. The world sees me as old. That old person you’re trying to speak with? Probably a boomer. And to understand how to talk to us, it helps to understand, well, us.

Demographers classify boomers as people born between 1946 and 1964, but there are two different cohorts. The first, the “leading-edge boomers,” were born between 1946 and 1955 — those who came of age during the Vietnam War. This year, they range in age from 65 to 73. But even this cohort is not homogenous. It includes Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Democrats and Republicans, environmental activists and climate-change deniers, people who are physically impaired and those who’re still running and skiing. Some are boring, and some are so brilliant that you’d feel lucky to spend time with them.

I’ve been writing about this cohort for 45 years, starting with my book Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties. The way I define them is: people of various ages who were infected by the ideals of the ’60s. They believed, and did not take this ironically, that we could make love, not war. They had a passion for improving the world and a self-transforming agenda. They can get emotional when they hear “Sergeant Pepperor see a film clip of Bobby Kennedy saying, “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’”

We’ve reinvented each phase of life as we moved through it. In 1966, Time chose as its “Man of the Year” not a man, but, for the first time in its history, a generation: “The man — and woman — of 25 and under.” On the cover was a painting of four young faces. We were it, the center of the cyclone, and we urged each other, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Then we turned 30. That was a tough birthday, but we had our own popular TV show, Thirtysomething, which dramatized our attempts to launch a meaningful career and couple up with the right person. We were cutting hair, shaving beards, and buying bras again. Those who dropped out to live on communes had to drop back in or become relics.

Our forties and fifties were about raising children, and we were determined to do it better than our parents had. We rewrote all the rules, starting with allowing fathers in the delivery room. We analyzed and stewed over every choice, got second opinions and read books, and came to every doctor’s appointment and parent conference with lists of questions. We wanted our kids to have every tool for success, so we scheduled them with playdates and classes in music, dance, Chinese or French, soccer, gymnastics, and karate. My son had his orange belt when he was five.

In our sixties, we ran smack into the empty nest. Those words don’t begin to describe the void, the gaping maw we were facing. I called it “the Narrows.” My children — who had occupied my first thoughts on waking and my last before sleep — were off in college. I’d been aged out of writing for TV, which had been my main source of income for 25 years, and the man I’d hoped to spend the rest of my days with rode off with no discussion. For the first time in my life, I had no kids at home, no work, and no partner. My calendar was empty. Yet our life span had increased, due to medical advances and better health habits. At 60, we still felt vigorous and wanted to contribute. Which is why I wrote Leap: What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives?

These days, as we move through our seventies, many of our close friends and heroes are struggling with illness, and some are dying. I’m sick of hearing that Bette Davis quote: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” Duh. As the body wears down, we have “issues” with hips, knees, shoulders, backs, and hearts, not to mention wrinkles and saggy faces. And memory? Forget it. On a recent day, I couldn’t remember where the “control” button was on my keyboard.

But I’m happy to tell you that many of us are less worried and stressed, provided we’ve prepared financially for this time.

We’re past the age where we have to prove anything to anyone, and we’re tasting moments of what has become the holy grail — equanimity. Some of us have been meditating, doing yoga, and having various kinds of therapy for decades. We’ve learned that we can’t get rid of parts of ourselves that we don’t like, but we can do better. We can accept them, allow them to just be there, with love.

Many of us are going on the road. We have the time, and we’ve found that landing in a foreign country fires all your senses, waking you from the slumber of the familiar. We can be spotted in the most remote parts of the globe — clumps of seniors wearing protective hats, sunglasses, and athletic shoes and clutching bottles of water.

Some of us are moving to another state to be close to our grandkids. Just as nothing prepares you for having a child, nothing prepares you for the rapture of becoming a grandparent. I’d been irritated when friends waxed on about it, but when I held my first grandchild, four days old, against my chest and felt his tiny heart beating softly against mine, I was overcome by the communion. This wee new light was coming into the world just as my own light was slowly fading. Through him, I was connected to the future, and through me, he was linked to the past. It was… poignant. I had no words, just gratitude.

Now that I’ve told you a bit about us, we’re eager to hear about you: what it’s like to come of age now, your relationships, your mating habits, your work/life balance. Can you explain to us about tattoos? Because we don’t get it. Can you help us keep up with technology? We try hard, but we’re not native to it, as you are. When my daughter was six, she found my old electric typewriter at the back of a closet. “Do you know what that is?” I asked. She nodded. “A computer.”

Now, I understand that was a roundabout way of answering the question at hand, so I’ll close with some tips that might help you talk to the old.

  1. First: Can they hear you? Speak loudly and find a quiet place.
  2. Can they see you? Have they had their cataracts fixed? Pick a location with good lighting.
  3. Find common ground — music, spirituality, politics. Most of us believe that in our youth, we had the best music produced in the past 100 years. I’d love to hear your opinion. At a Crosby, Stills, and Nash concert a few years ago, I sat next to a row of twentysomethings who sang along to every song. “How do you guys know the words?” I asked. They answered in unison: “Parents.”
  4. Find something to laugh about. A good laugh, at our age, is almost as good as an orgasm. Almost.
  5. Get stoned with us, with your drug of choice. We were the first generation to widely “consume cannabis,” as we say in Colorado, where I now live. It will make things more fascinating.
  6. When we say we’re ready to go, it’s just first call. You can order another cup of coffee while we suit up.
  7. Have fun. As long as you’re spending time with one of us, make it your business to enjoy it. Whenever Janis Joplin was about to go onstage, to calm her nerves, she would say to herself, “Have a good time, Janis.”

And so shall we.

Sara Davidson is the N.Y. Times best-selling author of Loose Change, The December Project, and JOAN: 40 years of life, loss, and friendship with Joan Didion.

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