July 29, 2012

The Cranky Old Man

What follows is a very unusual post for Satisfying Retirement. It is a poem. You may have read this before on different web sites. There are all sorts of stories about where it came from and who wrote it. But, before I get into that, please just read the following. It is written from the perspective of a very old man in a nursing home:

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you're looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . .not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . ... . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .'I do wish you'd try!'
Who seems not to notice . . .the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . ... lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . .The long day to fill?
Is that what you're thinking?. .Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse .you're not looking at me.
I'll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I'm a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he'll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don't mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. ...Babies play 'round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future ... . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I've known.
I'm now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It's jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigor, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I'm loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. .... . ME!!

There are stories on the Internet that this was left behind by a man who died in a nursing home in Australia. The poem was discovered after his death by a nurse. Other sites claims that story is a hoax. They claim the poem was written by a youngish man who lives in Texas.

Frankly, I don't care where it came from. Whatever the source, this is a tremendously moving piece of writing, because it rings so true. Old people, especially those without the support system of a family, are left to a system that often treats them as simply numbers and no longer as people with stories and a history.

The impact of the message of Cranky Old Man will strike each of us differently. I for one, was deeply touched and ashamed that I have thought of too many very old people in exactly this manner. As I move through my sixth decade obviously all of this becomes more real to me. But, it isn't too late to change my mindset and try to see the whole person behind the wrinkles, pain, and loneliness. The physical decay of a body is inevitable. The decay of our respect for that person is not.


  1. I never thought I'd age the way others did. I was wrong! Thanks for the poem.

  2. Yeah I have run across this a few times in my life. The other one I like that seems to be more me is from Mark Twain:

    " I am old; I recognize it but I don't realize it. I wonder if a person ever really ceases to feel young -- I mean, for a whole day at a time."

    I guess I am destined to die of old age with a very young mind. -- I said that (ha)

  3. Maybe it is self-protection, but even at 63 I don't see or think of myself as a "senior' yet, though in the eyes of the world I am.

    What this poem makes quite clear is that view of someone comes with judgments and actions that are unwarranted and unfair.

  4. Steve in Los AngelesSun Jul 29, 04:39:00 PM MST


    You stated, "Old people, especially those without the support system of a family, are left to a system that often treats them as simply numbers and no longer as people with stories and a history."

    With regard to both of my parents and especially with regard to my Dad, I made sure that they were treated as people with stories and a history and NOT simply as numbers. My parents were very interesting people. They certainly have stories to tell and a history. I am not going to write their stories and histories here as I could write a book. However, I suffice it to state here that both my Mom and Dad had very full lives. I still can recall my Dad singing his version of "O sole mio" (which went like this: "O sole mio, you are a trio") in the shower. My Dad was a real bathtub baritone!

    I am doing my best to stay healthy both physically and mentally. Last Friday, another man paid me a real compliment. He thought I was age 41. I told him that I really am age 56. I guess that I am doing a good job with staying healthy. I have a warning to young people who think they can take advantage of older people. Be careful, I am watching all of you. I may be getting older. However, I have a lot of "street smarts" and life experiences.

    1. One of the things anyone can do is to volunteer some time to visit a senior center or nursing home. These folks are often without family and rarely if ever get visitors. As your dad proved, we all have something interesting in our story. There just needs to be someone who cares enough to listen.

  5. Yes, we Americans have a tremendous fear of old age. I worked and then volunteered for 10 years in a Masonic care center with the progressive levels of care. I found residents to have the pretty much the same degree of happiness or unhappiness as any other segment of society. They weren't all sad and depressed. Many were happy to have the company and the routines of the home were safe and comforting. Of course illness and dementia are what they are and no one will enjoy those times. But, my experience with this home and the ones my dad and grandparents spent short times in were nothing but positive. They loved the nurses and enjoyed the attention. It's always best if they have family but many don't and the other residents and staff become their families. Most of us enjoyed their stories...which were many! While there always reports of neglect or abuse, there could be many more stories of happiness if we looked for them. So, while this poem is touching it's pretty depressing too. Let's look for the positive in living a long life and lessen the fear.

    1. This poem strongly points out what happens when someone is not in a positive environment like you cite. The retirement community where my dad is would also be on the highly positive side of the scale. The nurses at the care center where my mom spent her last 18 months were literally angels.

      It is good to be reminded, though, of what can happen when a warm and loving environment doesn't exist. No one should ever have to suffer the indignities this fellow describes, but they do.

      Isn't a lot of it up to the family members to pick a good home and then stay in close touch to monitor the situation and supply needed love and attention?

  6. If you think like an 'old person' you will become one. I prefer to place role models such as Bruce Springsteen (who just turned 62), Meryl Streep (age 61 and still playing love/romance roles) and Olivia Newton John (still stunningly sexy at age 62)as my inspiration. If they can maintain their great lives, so can I.

    It's not written in stone that we must get fat around the middle, not use sun tan lotion to protect our skin, give up exercise (Clint Eastwood still runs daily at age 77 and so does Mic Jaeggar, also in his 70's).

    I try not to think of my age. Rather, I concentrate on how I feel, which is 'great'. I volunteered for 6 weeks at an assisted living home and although I loved the work and the people, I found myself complaining (and age matching) along with my clients and that was not a good thing. Perhaps, when I am in my 90's I can comfort the aged because I will have become one. But until then, I'd like to concentrate on my own life, my own pursuits and interests.

    If Bruce Springsteen would hang around old age homes, rather than his somewhat youthful thinking audience, what do you think would happen to him? And his music and energy?

    People see what you are or have become. We still see Springsteen as a 20 something year old (at least I do) because that is where Bruce is at. Same with Streep and Olivia Newton John. They think and act young, thus they are.

    1. Oh dear, anonymous...I doubt if you have a clue as to what these famous people think or do in their real lives. I admire them too, but I don't emulate them. They may very well complain and kvetch aplenty. And they look great because they are in the public eye and it is required to keep up appearances...and they have the advantage of wealth and fame to aid them. Do you despise the rest of us "real" people so much? Trust me...no matter how they look on the outside they are still the age they are underneath...just like the rest of us. As for hanging out with 20 year olds in order to feel youthful and energetic...that would be pathetic. Don't delude yourself.

    2. I have to say I agree with anonymous, to a point, Bob. I realize how old I am and the aches and pains I have, etc. but if you let yourself be consumed by those things you will age faster than the blink of an eye.

      I also agree it's important to have friends a bit younger than yourself. Between my kids and their friends, and an assortment of my friends in between I feel it's easier to stay current. It helps with the technology today, too.

      Ageing is real, but so much of it is perception and your state of mind.

    3. I don't want to speak for Jane, but I was somewhat taken aback by Anonymous' "I'd like to concentrate on my own life and pursuits" approach. Isn't that one of the reasons some older people feel marginalized and cut off...because younger people don't want to be with them?

      As Barb notes. aging is both real and a perception. The perception part is the one that can do harm.

      I am always disappointed when I notice that Betty and I are the only "younger" people having lunch with parents when we visit my dad every week for the noon meal. Except on holidays we rarely see the sons or daughters of the residents enjoying a meal with their parents.

    4. Note to readers: Anonymous from above left a follow up comment that was too rude to post. He (or she) has decided we are too old for him to continue reading this blog. Since the comments added nothing new to this discussion I deleted it.

      I wonder how someone has been reading a blog entitled Satisfying Retirement for several months but has finally realized it is targeted at older folks.

      Oh well.

    5. Steve in Los AngelesTue Jul 31, 01:36:00 PM MST


      I am glad that you used the term "older folks" and not "old folks". Many of us, myself included, I am sure do not consider ourselves "old" by any stretch of the imagination.

      I wonder how "Anonymous" will feel when he or she really does get old!

  7. I work with geriatric patients at a veterans hospital and whenever we have new employees we have a film that goes with this exact poem . Even 26 years later, it never fails to reduce me to tears. While taking good care of your health and being active mentally, physically and spiritually are indeed important, they don't eliminate the fact that bad stuff sometimes happens to us. Many of the elderly I work with had very interesting, active lives. It's fascinating to me to see pix of them as children, or young men. Those that can tell me about their past lives. And I disagree with anonymous (Morrison is that you?) the people she describes are celebrities with wealth and resources at their disposal not available to 99% of us. I say enjoy our lives, accept that while we may grow older I'm body, we need not in mind. Treasure the elderly for their experiences can be a great teacher. Don't deny your age, live your life to the fullest.

  8. I had read this poem more than once in the past. Makes me take pause each and every time. I think at times, at age 60, our society has made me feel invisible already. We are a society of status symbols and what we do to an extent. It is sad that we fail to look to our elders a little more for experience, wisdom and direction.

    1. When I was working in radio and market research I was constantly reminded of the absurd focus on the youth. When I began, advertisers wanted no one older than 54 are part of their target. Then, the important demographic became 25-49. Finally, by the time I knew the industry was passing me bye and quit, the preferred demo was 18-34.

      Forget the fact that the largest percentage of real wealth and disposable income was with those over 35. Advertisers weren't interested. Now, we are finally seeing those same advertisers target Baby Boomers because of the sheet size of the market. It isn't because of a great awakening, rather the need to survive.

  9. Interestingly, just yesterday, after two days intense hiking together, my 29 year old daughter casually mentioned "You know, I probably wouldn't spend as much time with you guys [i.e., her mom and dad] if you two weren't as physically active as you are."

    Given that she quietly knocked on the door of our trailer early each morning in order to come in and talk over coffee before we got started on our day, I know there is much more to our relationship than just that which we share physically, but still, it took us a bit aback. While our plan is to be active for decades to come, we do recognize that at some point things beyond our control might occur to change all that.

    I think the point she was really trying to make is that she spends much time with us outside of just the major holidays, because we make an effort to share and pursue common passions. Which we would continue to do even if circumstances took hiking off the table at some point. We'd simply shift over to over less-physical passions we share, such as following and discussing current events, watching college football, going out wine tasting, knitting, baking and attending the many endurance events she enters.

    An unintentional, but good, reminder that there will really never come a time when we can stop exerting effort if our goal is to remain meaningful and viable, both in the lives of our loved ones and in society.

    1. There are many parents who would love to have a relationship as solid as the one you have with your daughter. The fact you can share things together is so important. And, you are absolutely correct about the importance of staying viable, in whatever way is possible.

  10. It actually was written by a woman in the 1960's, about a woman. The story was since changed to a man, although the general idea is the same and the meaning is very accurate.