Now millennials can actually take courses in “adulting” — how to become adults — that include everything from financial advice to home repair to how to minimize hangovers.

Along with what “Seinfeld” teaches about love.

What a big fat target for satire and disdain — spoiled, self-indulgent children in big boy clothes who need a workshop to learn how to get a quote from GEICO or learn about relationships from Jerry, George, and Elaine.

And those courses, what’s supposed to empower millennials, in fact infantilizes them even more.

Old people also face this kind of warped, paradoxical mix of infantilization under the guise of empowerment. What they learn, though, is quite different from the millennials.

In the name of empowerment, older adults are taught not to be an adult any more.

No one offers a formal course on this disempowerment through empowerment. In fact people involved with the elderly — experts as well as the rest of us — would claim they are doing just the opposite.

But that is in fact what happens, and it’s apparent in the words we use to describe old people and their lives.

Words like “cute,” “senior,” and “day care” may seem innocent and well meaning. In reality they infantilize and demean.

They suggest to an older person that it is time to move on.   You are not quite an adult anymore. Know your place.

“Cute:” A few months ago a younger friend of mine said to my wife and me, “You are such a cute couple.”

Cute is a word about children. We use it to describe a kindergarten class photo or your daughter’s prom picture with the captain of the soccer team.

Using “cute” to describe a person like my wife and myself creates an image of a smiling, twinkly eyed couple, like a North Pole production photo of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, or astonishment that people on social security don’t look like Granny in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

That’s one reason why so many people are surprised and discombobulated when they discover that we cutie pie old folks not only still have sex but also have a rate of sexually transmitted disease right up there with the rest of you.

“Adult day care:” What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the words “day care?” Right, the place you drop off your 2-year-old on the way to the side job you need to pay for day care.

Of course some adults need and want day programs. It’s not about the program. It’s about the infantilizing name.

“Senior:” This is an insidiously tricky term. It’s supposed to, I guess, indicate dignity.

What it really does is to demean by obfuscating the truth, which is that a person my age is old.

Old of course is not all we old people are. Quite the contrary.

But “seniors?” “Senior” is a manifestation of the fear you have about joining us someday, which of course you will.

“Old” has become a term that dares not pass through the lips, like “death” or something creepy that makes you shudder like “rat lungworm disease.”

In the Milwaukee neighborhood where I grew up there was a small nursing home where a lot of my grandparents’ friends and relatives ended up.

Its official name was “Milwaukee Jewish Home for the Aged,” but everyone just called it “the Old Home.” Correct.

Get over it, bro. People like me are old. Call me by my name.

“Client/patient/student”: There is a lot to learn about becoming old, just as there is much to learn about becoming an adult. But much of this learning about oldness is experiential. You face adjustments, accommodations and challenges as you always have.

All this stress on teaching and instructing can be intrusive and demeaning.

Sure, older people need help learning new things about, say, finances. My financial planner is invaluable. Without him I would be a seasonal at UPS or, Lord help me, still teaching at UH.

But, like the courses in adulting, all the workshops about aging and planning also come with a cost. They can overemphasize the need to plan and overly stress the need to depend on experts rather than on your own desires and spontaneity.

The term of art is “learned dependence.”

All this advice about aging can create a false impression that there only one Proper Way to Age.

Bucket lists are fine — for some. They are about rational planning and objectives. But what about the enjoyable parts of ambiguity and serendipity that had previously been a part of your life?

Learning from experts can be liberating and exhilarating, just as learning from your favorite high school teacher was. But as you matured, you leaned the limits of learning from others and began to trust yourself more.

Get over it, bro. People like me are old. Call me by my name.

The results were not always good, but they were yours.

In his novel “Wrecked,” Joe Ide has a wonderful description of the loving relationship between a mother and daughter.

“It was more than the usual mother-daughter bullshit,” Ide writes. “She let her daughter solve her own problems and take the consequences of her mistakes.”

“She never said it’s cold outside Grace. Please take a jacket.”

“Instead she let Grace go outside, feel the cold, and regret not taking a jacket.”

Real life for old people as for everyone else is not about black and white. It is about variability, choices and tendencies.

The tendency is to treat older people as if they are limited, dependent, and in need of instruction. Often that is a good tendency. But often it’s not.

Old folks may be a half century older than Grace, but they can still feel the cold and decide for themselves whether they need or want insulation.

Now is the time to support our nonprofit newsroom

Civil Beat focuses exclusively on the kind of journalism most at risk of disappearing – in-depth, investigative and enterprise coverage of important local issues. While producing this type of journalism isn’t cheap, you won’t find our content hidden behind a paywall. We also never worry about upsetting advertisers – because we don’t allow any. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on donations from readers like you to help keep our stories free and accessible to everyone. If you value our journalism, show us with your support.

About the Author