Respect Your Elders

By Bruce Frassinelli

When I was young, my parents stressed time and time again “show respect for your elders.” It was certainly top-of-mind awareness as I grew up, became a young man and gravitated into middle age.

I would give my seat to a person I deemed needed one more than I, I helped a number of elderly persons across the street if they seemed incapable of beating the “walk” signal, I always opened doors for persons I presumed to be senior citizens, and I always volunteered to do chores for some elderly persons in my neighborhood.

(By the way, I also always open doors for women, even though I was once reprimanded for doing so. When I was returning from lunch one day, I opened the door for a woman in front of me who was entering The Palladium-Times building in Oswego where I was the publisher. She snapped at me, “I can do that for myself.” Despite her admonition, I still open doors for women and tip my cap to them.)

Now that I am well into my senior years (83), I have become the beneficiary of some of the acts of respect that I had once accorded my elders.

Younger people defer to me when entering a building or exiting an establishment.

Family members and friends offer to accompany me down the driveway to my car after a visit. (I am secretly conflicted about accepting this offer. On the one hand, I am grateful for the safety that it provides, but, on the other, I consider it yet another action that I might have to rely on others for, whereas once it was the type of task that was done without a second thought.)

Most of us have heard the phrase “respect your elders.” Many reading this magazine probably are in the 55-plus age group, so I am sure you can share how you treated your elders before you became part of this amorphous group. Do you now have expectations for treatment from family, loved ones, even the general public, and, if so, what are they? Or maybe you say 55 or 60 is too young to have these expectations yet.

It is really difficult to pin down what society recommends when the term “respect for our elders” is dissected. Obviously, there is no one definition that fits all segments of society. Some of this revolves around expectations within certain cultures, ethnic groups and religion.

One of the most interesting debates I have had with people about this topic is whether age alone is sufficient reason to command respect. I argue that it’s not, but a lot of people disagree with me. They believe that longevity alone is reason enough to expect deferential treatment.

I don’t know about you, but one of the major areas where expectation vs. reality comes into play involves our relationship and interaction with our grandchildren. I have found that some of my nine grandchildren are very attentive. They check in with me by text or email periodically, make an occasional phone call and unsolicited visit and, while they are with me, volunteer to do any chores that need completion. Some of the other grandkids are much more aloof.

How we respond can be fraught with pitfalls, so perhaps many of you do what I do: nothing overtly, but I am frustrated by the lack of contact from some of the grandkids. I have even had fleeting thoughts of trying to get their attention by not sending a birthday or Christmas gift, but then calmer heads prevailed, and I wound up treating them equally in gift-giving. 

I thought about having a conversation with them or their parents about my expectations but scrapped that idea for fear of its coming off as petty or misunderstood.

Children and grandchildren receive mixed messages about how to treat us seniors. Let’s start with one of the Ten Commandments. There it is, big as life: “Honor thy father and thy mother.’’ By implication, this means honoring the elderly, too. There are plenty of biblical verses about the importance of honoring and caring for the elderly. None is clearer than: “Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged.” (Leviticus 19:32)

At the other end of the spectrum, TV advertising often portrays the elderly as doddering old fools who engage in all sorts of socially inappropriate behavior. There is a line in recent Progressive Insurance commercials that says, “We can’t prevent you from becoming your parents….’’ The implication is plain: You don’t want to go down that potholed road and act and behave as your parents do. God forbid. Why not? A lot of parents set great examples for their kids. I hope I am one of them.

Following a study, Educational Gerontology concluded that negative stereotyping of the elderly has been identified as a “significant social issue.”

Because the mass media are a potent source for shaping attitudes, especially for children toward the elderly, they have a responsibility to portray the elderly in a more positive and realistic light.

Why is respect for the elderly so important? It’s a way of showing we value their wisdom and contributions to society. We seniors have firsthand experiences when it comes to history, so it gives us a unique perspective.

Seniors report feeling lonely and socially isolated, which negatively affects their health. The combination of isolation and growing old translates to a feeling of being valueless in a modern society. When children and young adults learn to value and respect seniors, it allows them to play more of a key role in their community and family life.

According to researchers who have studied this issue, learning to respect their elders can help younger people confront their own aging later in life. They are more likely to embrace the aging process rather than fear or resent it.

Something seemingly as innocuous as how we refer to the elderly can be an important factor in showing respect. I was brought up to refer to someone a generation older than I as “Mr.,” `Mrs.,” or more recently “Ms.” If the person had a title, I would use it — “Dr.” or “Rev.”, for example. On second or subsequent references, it would be “sir” or “ma’am.”

As I have gotten older, I pay more attention to what people call me. When an unthinking younger person thought I wasn’t moving fast enough, he barked, “Hurry up, old man.” When I went into a fast food place recently, the 20s-something server greeted me with, “What can I getcha, pops?” I don’t know why but on a recent birthday a much younger friend referred to me as “82 years YOUNG.’’ I’m not. I’m 82 years OLD.

I have overheard conversations among young people who referred to elderly neighbors, sometimes even family members, as “old geezer” “dinosaur” and “fossil.”

There is something to be said about the “generation gap” when it comes to a meeting of the minds. Growing up, we tend to downplay our parents’ knowledge. In our quest to achieve our independence from their rule, we categorize what they tell us or suggest to us as outdated, inconsequential or out of it.

English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) probably nailed this phenomenon when he wrote in a couplet: “We think our fathers fools so wise we grow; our wiser sons will no doubt think us so.”

Just remember, though, respect is a two-way street. If older persons act like jerks or are rude to a child or younger person, they shouldn’t complain if they don’t get respect in return.