Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1998
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Retiring Kinds
By "Guido Veloce"

In recent years, I have spent a great deal of time in various homes for senior citizens. No, it hasn't been to scout a place for retirement. With our level of income, thrift, and long-range planning, we are looking forward to spending our own golden years in a trailer park with a freeway view. And, no, this isn't going to be an exposŽ of the plight of the elderly. The places we have seen while caring for relatives have been pleasant and staffed by people who deserve the secular equivalent of sainthood.

What fascinates me is the way aging brings together people of quite different generations: the range from youngest to oldest in one such place is about 30 years. That leads to horrifying thoughts about what will happen when the flower children of the 1960s and the "me" generation of the 1970s find themselves in the same institutions.

The food is definitely going to have to change. The present cuisine is plain, all-American, and a genuine treat for survivors of the Great Depression who looked at the advent of TV dinners with the awe their children reserved for Julia Child. It is a diet rich in ham, roasted chicken, meatloaf, potatoes, and veggies boiled to remove all annoying suggestions of freshness. Cookies are a major food group. Fresh herbs are strictly forbidden. Cinnamon marks the risquŽ outer limit of seasoning, although--perhaps in a sign of things to come--a couple of residents have relatives smuggle in an occasional batch of salsa and chips. The cuisine is popular to the point where crowd control is a serious issue when the dining room doors open. I have had toes mashed by a walker when I was inadvertently blocking the straightest line to the Wonder Bread and lo-cal margarine.

That simply will not do for the generations of the '60s and '70s. Among the few things they had in common was an insatiable taste for kitchen gadgets and food fads. No life-prolonging, spirituality-enhancing, cellulite-shrinking, planet-preserving, or wrinkle-removing diet went untried. No culinary corner of China, France, or Italy went unexplored. Few parts of Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, or Mexico escaped gastronomic scrutiny.

Those '60s and '70s food warriors are not going to go gently into a good, gray night of macaroni and cheese, at least not just any macaroni and any old cheese (al dente, with unpasteurized chvre, please). I pity the dietitians and menu planners of the future as they face geriatric vegetarians, anti-aging dieters, tofu junkies, sushi eaters, chili pepper connoisseurs, and porcinni risotto freaks. It won't be pretty.

Even so, planning meals may be a piece of whole-wheat carrot cake compared to coming up with meaningful activities. Present-day residents share, for example, enough of a broadly intergenerational repertoire to permit youngest and oldest to join the weekly circle around the piano for rousing renditions of "Beer Barrel Polka," "I'm Looking over a Four Leaf Clover," "You Are My Sunshine," and a mildly naughty "Frankie and Johnny." That is not going to happen when you have, in the same room, people who get misty-eyed at the opening notes of "Satisfaction" along with ones who genuinely care about whatever happened to disco. Given the massive musical gulf between the generations of the '60s and '70s, I can well imagine fierce debates over whether to have an Aretha Franklin Night or to sing along to the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" or to the sound track to "Saturday Night Fever" (tactfully omitting "Stayin' Alive").

Finding activities for the '60s people will be relatively easy, considering the amount of tie-dying, brownie-baking, and macrame skills they will bring to assisted living. But what kind of talks will appeal to the neo-elderly? Surely not the present ones on such things as the great gardens of Europe, the cuddly animals of Australia, and collecting little ceramic figurines of hyper-Aryan children. More to the tastes and needs of '60s people will be ones with such titles as: "When Self-Medication Fails," "Where Did All the Flowers Go?," "Higher Consciousness or Afternoon Nap?," "Free Love: Myth or Fantasy?," and "Is There Woodstock after Death?" For their '70s counterparts the more likely titles are: "How to Take It With You," "Polyester Remembered," "Were Children a Bad Investment?," "Growing Old Superficially," and, "Is There Shopping after Death?"

Perhaps the real nightmare will come when the slacker generation of the 1990s goes directly from unemployment to retirement. Imagine grunge music and rap sing-alongs, torn plaid flannel hospital gowns, an epidemic of PPSS (Pierced Parts Sagging Syndrome), and talks on "Work: Like, How Bad Would It Have Been?," "Straightening Wrinkled Tattoos," "Mumbling with Dentures," and "How to Beat Anti-Depressants."

As I look at calm, well-run homes for the elderly, and at the mostly sweet, gentle people in them, I see my own '60s cohort as the storm troopers for several truly obnoxious generations yet to enter such places. Steer your children and grandchildren away from careers in elder care if you value their sanity. We, quite literally, are going to be hell on wheels.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.


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