In an episode of NCIS called “Enemy on the Hill” (October 11, 2011), the landlady of an apartment building is asked for the key to an upper floor apartment. Bringing it up the stairs, she places it in Jethro Gibbs’ hand, holding on to his hand just a bit longer than necessary. Playful banter ensues. She is
definitely older than Gibbs but still presents a lively version of the younger woman she once was, wearing fitted jeans that quietly suggest a still decent figure. Gibbs unlocks the door and he and Tony DiNozzo enter, the landlady only one step behind them. In a verbal sparring contest with NCIS agents Gibbs and DiNozzo, Mrs. Roach, the feisty, silver-haired landlady obviously interested in the aloof-ish Gibbs, refers to him as “Boss,” as she has heard DiNozzo do. She thinks it’s cute. When they decline the need for her further assistance, she turns her back to them and steps through the door to the landing. Then she decides to go for it – her hand grabs the door-frame and her face comes back into view. Leaning her cheek coquettishly against her fingers, Mrs. Roach peers up into Gibbs’ eyes.
“You wanna come with me Boss?”
He turns his face to her thoughtfully, gives his usual sort-of-a-smile and says, not unkindly, “I’ll wait here.”
We hear her bouncing down the stairs, her finely-tuned feathers unruffled. It was worth a try. Dinozzo snickers. That’s what they call a “turkey vulture” he says.
A few years ago I took my young granddaughter, Kearsti, to the Oktoberfest in Brimfield. It’s put on by the German Family Society and is a weekend of fun, folk dancing, and singing – and of course, lots of home-cooked German food – schnitzel, homemade sausages, cabbage rolls, and delicious German pastries. They have an indoor dance hall, outdoor entertainment pavilion, dining tent, and the pièce de résistance – an outdoor biergarten. What’s not to like?
There’s an admission fee collected as you pull in, then you are directed to a parking spot – it would be mass chaos otherwise. As I waited in line, I heard the teenager tell the driver of the car in front of me that it would be $4 each, so I readied myself with $8 and waited. She came up to my window and holding a large wad of bills in her hand, looked in, and said it would be $2. Don’t you mean 8, I asked. No, it’s 2 for you and she (nodding in Kearsti’s direction) is free. I pointed out that I’d heard her say 4 each to the person ahead of me, and I didn’t want to cheat her. That’s when she said that it’s only 2 for senior citizens.
I was a bit taken aback, but in a spirit of teasing I asked, “Do I look that old?” “I’m sorry,” she said, “but your hair…” [which already had lots of naturally evolving white highlights among the fading dark brown] “well, I thought…anyway you don’t look like one – but two bucks is two bucks.” I laughed and thanked her for the discount. She was probably afraid I’d be angry.
I’d never be angry. Crushed, maybe. But not angry.
These days it’s hard to tell a lot of bona fide senior citizens from those who aren’t quite yet. AARP’s definition, 50, is a throwback to a time when the average lifespan was probably 60 or so, making “middle age” somewhere around 35. We have got to change our nomenclature, move into the 21st century. If you’ve been paying attention, the chronologically named senior citizen has moved over the years, at least in the physiological sense. With the advances in medicine and technology, people are living longer, healthier, and more active lives. More and more people are reaching their 90s, some even beyond, a significant number of whom do so with their mental faculties in better working order than some of the rest of us. And some of these 90+-year-olds are not doing too bad physically either, keeping fit as they age rather than taking up the knitting needles or becoming television zombies and never leaving their sofas. I even see some people in these age groups at the gym.
Official retirement is also on the move – to 66, 67, and perhaps will reach 70 in no time at all – a change not simply due to the politics involved, either. People who enjoy the work they do keep on working – and why shouldn’t they if it keeps them engaged. AARP’s determinate “50” should be considered middle age now, perhaps even only its early stages. Most of us don’t, and won’t, retire until at least one or two decades beyond this. And some of us never retire in toto.
When I was a kid, a senior citizen was someone who had not only retired but someone who did nothing but watch their grandkids play and engage in minor gardening or knitting. No heavy lifting after 62 in many cases.
When did all that change?
The “Senior Citizen” branding iron has lately been replaced in some circles – at least the movement is afloat and gaining strength – with “Mature Person.” Older people are now “mature people.” Does that suggest that maturity is something achieved chronologically? Is that “mature” as in “ripened,” like a pear? Is that akin to having gained wisdom by virtue of your “number”? What, then, do you call the 25-year-old who has had, and successfully managed, a lot of responsibility, made sound decisions, wise choices, and conducted him-/herself responsibly? Yes, there are mid-twenty-somethings out there like this, even if not as many as there used to be. Is there another word for “mature youth” now – some new quirky thing like matouth? – The matouth was in charge of an organization responsible for overseeing four major organizations with offices nationwide, a loving husband, a hands-on father of two, and a highly respected member of the community at the age of 27. If you’d care to offer some suggestions for new, hip terms for people falling into this category, we’d all be glad to hear it.
But chronology is not the equivalent of identity, at least it shouldn’t be. It is a word, though – and words do count, particularly in this uber-sensitive age of political correctness. But what’s even more important is to remember that we are not the stereotypes our numbers suggest.
Mrs. Roach certainly couldn’t be mistaken for your typical senior citizen.
“A turkey vulture is 20 years past a cougar,” DiNozzo tells Gibbs, “still likes to hunt, but is too old to take down [her] prey.”
Then the voice of this cougar-like turkey vulture calls up from the bottom of the stairs, “I wouldn’t bet on that,” she says.