I thought this phenomenon only happened in my family. For years, I've been dismayed as I've watched the elderly men in my life -- grandfathers, great uncles, family friends -- slowly lose it. I've observed these once reasonable, good-humored men suddenly be reduced to barking at waitresses, flinging troublesome seat belts or cursing at relatives for imagined slights.
So I was pleased to read Ellen Graham's insightful essay Monday (subscription required) in a special section on retirement in Monday's Wall Street Journal on how men deal with aging. She questions why at 70 years old, her formerly affable husband, Don, suddenly fell victim to what she calls "elder combustion" by freaking out about traffic injustices, misplaced items and automated telephone "help" lines.
"If aging, in part, is about declining powers, men seem to take it harder -- and more personally -- than women. I know, that's a sweeping generalization. But think about the stereotypes: sweet little old ladies, but grumpy old men. I wonder: Do men, after decades of work, still have their toughest job ahead of them? How do our husbands, and brothers and uncles and fathers, make peace with aging?"
According to her, they don't. Some snap out of frustration when they encounter forgetfulness or night vision. They have trouble accepting change. Or they feel entitled to a temper tantrum -- as Don once boasted, "I've paid my dues -- now I can lose it if I want to."
Undoubtedly, aging is not all an Ensure commercial filled with active and well-dressed seniors marching down the beach. It's often a painful process in which one comes to terms with diminished capacities. But Graham asks why she's seemingly able to deal with it better; in fact, she brags that she's now better rested and mellower than "during the Stress Years of juggling motherhood and career." While Don bemoans how his foggy memory forces him to use maps, she shrugs off her "senior moments." When he sulks over not being able to lift a burlap sack, she points out that she doesn't feel the loss, since she never toted around heavy items in the first.
What do readers think? Are women able to handle aging more gracefully? I wonder if Graham, like many of the elderly women in my family, seems able to accept its challenges more easily because she has a lifetime of experience operating in the fluid gray areas of juggling so many roles. Men, on the other hand, ostensibly have dealt with fewer; so the pain of adjusting to a new life stage may be felt more acutely.
It will be interesting to observe whether as men enjoy the loosening of the shackles of traditional notions of parenting and work, they will bring this flexibility and ease to retirement. In the meantime, I just wish my grandfather would forgive our waitress for running out of cream of broccoli soup.