Are We Tarnishing Their Golden Years?

By: Sheila Anne Feeney
The New York Daily News, February 12, 1997

It's not the young, healthy people hogging the reserved bus seats who make Morton Weitzner wonder where respect for the aged has fled. 

"My basic argument is with the younger women [on the streets]," says the 71-year-old Weitzner, who suffers from arthritis and walks with a cane.

Young, crisply accessorized women with oversized pocketbooks bear down on him on the sidewalk, apparently determined not to lose a game of "chicken." Inevitably, their Kelly bags smash into his side as they pass. One lass "jumped over my cane!" the Manhattanite exclaims. 

Is it our imagination, or is there simply less respect for the elderly and frail these days? Has the gray mane denoting rank and status now become a scarlet letter or worse, a "kick me" sign? 

Well, yes and no. 

"We have all lost our civility, in general," says gerontological anthropologist Marjorie Schweitzer. 

Good manners the ability to share, cede the right of way, act charitably and treat different kinds of people with respect have simply declined across the board. 

Good Ol' Days That Never Were 

Respect for the aged has been an equal-opportunity casualty of the decline. Also, notes Schweitzer, the romantic notion of old-timers being revered like living jewels in the old days is not quite accurate: Truth is, younger people of yore also openly resented meddlesome grandparents and rebelled against tedious when-I-was-your-age jeremiads. 

What is true, says Schweitzer, is that lots of people grow up without any exposure to their grandparents, or to older people. Such isolationism often breeds ignorance, which spawns stereotypes and prejudice. 

In New York City, 12.8% of the population is older than 65. While many sexagenarians are robust and hearty, those whose health has failed feel particularly vulnerable. To them, the city resembles Darwin's petri dish, with the weak constantly feeling the threat of extinction, be it by crime or an increasingly daunting environment. 

"Older people in New York City feel particularly beleaguered. New York is a physically tough place for frail older people. It's a physically challenging place," observes Maria Vesperi, an associate professor of anthropology at New College in Sarasota, Fla. Vesperi, who specializes in studying the aged, says that increasing population density and an increase in "the hurriedness of daily life," can make older folks feel overlooked and mowed over, and prompt them to become defensively aggressive. 

The anonymity of a big city is also no comfort. One elderly woman with a cane recently waited several minutes on Ninth Ave. and 54th St. before a passerby consented to help her across a patch of ice: Pedestrians had rushed past, mistakenly assumming she was a beggar. 

Elderly people in neighborhoods where they've lived for a long time do "command a higher level of respect," notes Vesperi, because they're known to their neighbors. 

But, isn't behaving altruistically toward strangers a measure of a civilization's, well, civility? 

James Carter, president of the Ophelia DeVore School, a charm, modeling and executive training program, believes so. He runs etiquette classes that stress respect for, among others, elders. Some young people, he explains, hesitate to open a door or give a seat to an older person because they're afraid to offend folks who don't see themselves as old. 

"Everyone's all hung up on getting rejected," Carter sighs. "If you don't feel good about yourself, everything somebody says to you is going to be an issue. If you do have self-esteem, nothing is going to deter you from doing the right thing." 

Shariff Sanders, 14, a graduate of Carter's course, remembers the first time he offered his seat on the bus to an older woman. Shocked, she exclaimed, "Thank you! You're such a kind gentleman!" "I never had an old person say that to me before," he says. 

His friend was also surprised, demanding to know why the Bronx teenager was "being nice all of a sudden." 

Sanders was happy to tell him: "I'm starting to get mature."