August 4, 2020

Grumpy Old People: A Stereotype or a Myth?


We are familiar with this personality type: the cranky old man. He is a stock character in movies, cartoons, and TV shows.  He seems to dislike everybody and everything. Step on his lawn or get in his way at the store, and you will know it. Make a mistake to ask him about the government or taxes, and your ears will burn for a week. Not wearing a face mask? I'm not saying anything to him. British author Carol Wyer has a name for it: "irritable male syndrome." He is not living a very satisfying retirement.

The reasons behind this phenomenon have been raised more than once by readers. Here is how one contributor posed the question that gets to the heart of the issue:

"Why it does it seem like so many “old” people become bitter and negative, and then you have those “rare” old people who are enthusiastic about life, stay positive and keep fit. Is that something the positive-minded person has to really work hard at? Did they make a deliberate decision to not complain about their aches and pains, and to see the world as a beautiful place? Or is this how they were all their life?"

Importantly, this question was not asked by someone in his or her 20's or 30's. This came from someone in their 50's or 60's, and therefore I assume it is a concern in his or her own life. Do we all end up inflexible and intolerant?  Does the prospect of losing the ability to drive, or to stay in one's home propel most of us to put a scowl on our face?

I am sure there are all sorts of research studies and physiological reasons why this "grumpy old man" attitude strikes. Medical causes may include a steady decline in testosterone levels that can produce this harmful mood effect.

It is fair to give everyone a bit of a pass on grumpiness now; a pandemic would make even Mister Rogers frown and snap at Danial Striped Tiger. It is hard to not lash out at something after the roller coaster ride we have been on since March.

Let me speculate on some possible triggers. Retirement can send many a man over the edge. With fewer friends than women, men can have little social interaction after work and become isolated and depressed. Certainly, the loss of a spouse could turn someone into a genuinely unhappy person. The loss of physical or mental capabilities has the potential to leave us bitter. We may remember the "good old days" as a time when the government seemed to work more smoothly, young people were more respectful, and doctors made house calls.


Oh, and before you accuse me of sexism, there are grumpy old women, too. I have met plenty in my time. Even my charm has no effect. Many of the factors that may affect a man, fit the female profile, too. Grumpiness does not play favorites.

As the reader's question implies, is the crankiness due more to attitude than reality? Are unhappy seniors just an older version of how they were when younger? Can people make a conscious effort to not fall into the complaint trap as they age? If there is a medical cause, will that person seek some help?

My personal opinion is the cause is a combination of factors. The declining levels of testosterone or estrogen after 50 are real. The effects are well documented. Overall, health and relationship issues must contribute to the potential for a less-then-sunny mood. The awareness of one's own mortality can be a rude awakening for anyone.

At the same time, I believe attitude can be a significant factor in preventing a full slippage into grumpiness. I don't mean the type of "everything is great, the glass is always at least half full" attitude. Denying what is happening in your life isn't the answer.

Maybe acceptance is a better word. No one gets out of here alive. Virtually all of us will suffer from some of the unpleasant realities of the aging process. To be grumpy and rude really says that a person is too self-absorbed. We all have aches and pains, we all lose family and friends, we all face the loss of our ability to drive.

To make everyone around you uncomfortable or unhappy is really saying, "It is all about me. My problems are worse than yours, and that gives me the right to lash out."

Actually, it doesn't.

30 comments:

  1. "Even my charm has no effect." You're too funny, Bob. I wonder if the sheer number of problems we run into as we age has sort of a snowball effect. If a younger person requires surgery, they often bounce back relatively quickly. If that person has a financial setback, there are several decades ahead in which to set things straight. A younger person's world is expanding; unfortunately, the world of an older person often begins contracting. While younger people certainly have crises to deal with, it's often one at a time. That's not so true for older people. Losing a spouse and members of their social circle, becoming unable to handle mental or physical chores, dealing with chronic pain, one or more medical conditions, a lack of financial resources and dwindling independence one after the other (or worse, all at the same time) - I can understand the devastating impact that may have, and I can both empathize and sympathize. It seems to me, that those who accept life's realities, and work to remain grateful for what they still have and can do, are the individuals who sail most gracefully through their later years. Surely, due to personality or life's circumstances, that would be more difficult for some than others. It's certainly a goal to which I aspire, though.

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    1. You have summarized the factors very well that can cause grumpiness. Certainly, I would like to ask God why he designed a human body to fall apart, sort of like planned obsolescence in an appliance or computer. Wouldn't it be better if we remained fit with all of our functions then just went to sleep one night, not to wake up? Oh well, The Supreme Being has yet to ask for my help.

      Watching various abilities slip away can teach one patience, tolerance, and acceptance. It can also turn someone bitter. We are not in that other person's shoes so we really shouldn't judge. But, we can try to follow your goal of doing our best to not allow the various challenges to knock us all out of shape.

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  2. We strive all our working lives for success, wealth, independence and leisure. But we can't escape fear—fear of their loss.

    Sourness only amplifies fear—and makes you a cosmic drag.

    Smiling is beguiling.

    You can’t be fearful when you’re cheerful.

    https://robertfrancisjames.com/make-em-laugh

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    1. "Smiling is beguiling" is a great thought. Smiling also causes those around you to smile. It is the universal antidote to stress and unhappiness. Thanks, Goodly.

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  3. I know at times I am one of those grumpy old men, especially when it comes to that guy in the Oval Office. But logically, and I am very logical, it makes no sense to end your life in that attitude. Why waste any time you have on this earth by being totally negative?

    I kinda like the phrase "The experiences of modern life can turn the most
    optimistic creature into a cynic" to explain why many are grumpy.

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    1. It takes a lot of work not to let the stupidity that often surrounds get us down. It is easy to turn into a cynic. But, as you note, what's the benefit to us?

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  4. I think for many "grumpy oldsters" they are suffering from depression. There could be triggers such as the death of a partner or parent, their loss of employment connections, or reduced circumstances due to a lower income than they were used to. People without depression can usually adjust to life events but it's so much harder or even impossible for those with depression.

    Perhaps they always suffered from depression but were better at hiding it when they were younger or depressive episodes become more frequent as they aged. Sometimes particular medications can make you susceptible to depression so that’s also something be aware of.

    Of course, some people are just difficult or demanding but that's different from being depressed. Solve the immediate problem of a demanding person and they are happy again, not so with depression.

    Having lived with a person with depression that went undiagnosed for many years I can tell you that a person with depression is GRUMPY and for no obvious reason. Of course in their mind there are lots of reasons - lousy spouse, lousy job, lousy kids, lousy house, lousy whatever, the list is lengthy - but their view of the world is distorted by their condition and they see no end to it.

    The one thing about depression is that the person that is depressed can't see it. The depressed person believes they are seeing the world as it really is (terrible) and usually it's the people around them that notice and urge them to get help. If someone doesn't have people around them that care about them enough to insist they get medical and professional help it can just go on and on never being resolved. This not a “do it yourself” condition. A person with depression cannot just buck up and look on the bright side, count their blessings and so on. The upside is that it can be successfully treated so do not give up, it has made a heck of a difference to our life.

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    1. You have highlighted a very important point. Often the depressed person isn't aware of what is driving their moods and attitudes. But, a family member or good friend should be able to notice the signs. By giving the depressed person a reason for the sour outlook, you are giving them hope that there is a solution.

      I have had bouts of depression during stressful, unhappy times in my life. My wife gently helped me see the causes behind my problem and prompted me to find help, which I did.

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  5. There are surly, unsocial teens and I wonder if they are the ones who turn into grumpy old people. I guess what I'm trying to say is maybe certain personality types don't change. A person that has spent their lifetime looking at everything like they've got a half empty glass isn't going to be a Mary Poppins in retirement. That said, there are so many things that change for us as we age---losses that can crush us it's a wonder anyone leaves this world with a happy attitude.

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    1. Without any scientific proof, I think it is likely that an unhappy younger person is not going to become the life of the party as they age. Even so, succumbing to a bad attitude is a often matter of choice (unless there is a medical reason).

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  6. All good points. But there's one thing I don't believe -- that your charm has no effect on those grumpy old women.

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  7. I like to believe that we have a choice in how we interpret and respond to the world, whether it's glass half full or half empty. That choice can be limited with a combination of life experiences and personality. Evansburg, AB, Canada is "Home of the Grouch". The community "elects" the winner each August. That person then becomes the community ambassador. Fun!

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    1. Maybe we need to think a little differently: the glass can be half full at times and half empty at others. Life has an ebb and flow. Someone who is happy all the time is somewhat suspect!

      "Home of the Grouch" sounds more like some of the retirement communities around Phoenix. Don't dare leave a trash can out too long or not cut your grass!

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  8. There have been times my sharp response has been hurtful to people as i can see it in their faces. I always apologize and tell them i am in pain and not angry. I KNOW when i sound grumpy and hurtful! There are days I apologize more than others. Usually, i am at least respectful if not cheery. I wonder if the perpetually grumpy and rude realize how they appear to others. Also, i wonder if they use their rudeness as power.

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    1. Interesting point about rudeness and power. That is a possibility. Your tactic of apologizing when you say something that hurts another is spot on. We have a tongue that sometimes doesn't obey. To quickly make amends is the best response.

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  9. I have been thinking about this very topic the last few years. Having grown up in a very negative family, I have tried hard to usually make others feel good about themselves. However, as I'm now 71 I find I really don't want to put up with ^%$# any more. Braggarts, who interrupt others so they can talk about themselves are no longer tolerable to me. I have cut my "friends" list down heavily.

    But also, I have decided that one of the biggest differences between the young and the old are illusions. When you are young you are pretty sure that the bad things in your life are going to straighten themselves out eventually: relationships, finances, careers, even health problems. When you are older, you finally realize that you are taking some hard hits all the way to the grave, and they aren't going to get better even if you are a really nice person. It's enough to make the old grumpy and depressed.

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    1. Reality versus illusion is an interesting point. As we age, reality is pretty much what we have left. Even so, your refusal to put up with certain kinds of people is the choice I would make. There are some folks who just will not see the sunny side of anything. Spending time with them just brings you down, too.

      My wife is my inspiration in this area. She has had so many health issues over the last 35 years, but remains generally upbeat, or at least doesn't spread her discomfort to others. As I start to accumulate the aches and body failures that come with aging, I look at her and remind myself I have absolutely no right to be publically unhappy.

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  10. Maybe it's the company I choose to keep, but I don't see a lot of grumpiness around me. I guess there are sad and jerky people of all ages but I usually just roll my eyes and move on. My husband has taught me the joy of random snippets of conversation (with the grocery store workers, mailman, etc.) and I find most of them enjoy a quick chat too. People like to be seen and acknowledged. Maybe some of the grumpy ones feel ignored and invisible. My mother-in-law is the poster child for having a good attitude despite her 86-year-old body's aches and pains.

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    1. I agree: acknowledging and talking with a clerk or anyone is ignored most of the time almost always generates a smile and a pleasant response.

      If possible, just removing yourself from the vicinity of a grouchy person is a good idea.

      Give your MIL a hug for me...good for her

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  11. I've known more than a few grumpy old men (and women) in my lifetime. Sometimes life has dealt them a bad hand, but most of the time, they're just not happy people. Depression definitely plays into it in many cases. It is odd, though, that some people who have had the worst breaks in life are happy overall, so I think some of our attitude is just inborn/personality. In general, I have to agree with Abe Lincoln: Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

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    1. Abe probably had it figured out: we can have a major impact on our innate personality dispositions by applying a proper attitude. But, to be clear, serious depression is something that needs medical attention. It should not be covered up with a fake smile.

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    2. Absolutely agree re: depression. Many people in my family suffer from it, and it is no joke.

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  12. Good to think about. I’ve seen my parents become very negative and I don’t want that for myself. We all face unpleasant situations and how does being grumpy about it help? Sure, we can all have a down day but we need to find something good in our lives and let that set our mood. I sure hope I can follow my own advice. Until you’re there, it’s tough to know.

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    1. Even with their last few years of challenges my parents never became negative. My MIL, however, was very tough to be around. She disliked her life and let everyone know.

      I find cynicism sneaking into too much of my thinking recently. I believe that has the potential to increase my grumpy tendencies if I am not careful. If anyone wants a true test of his ability to avoid becoming a grouch, get through 2020 with a smile and you have it beat.

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    2. Oh boy, that's the truth!!

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  13. I think another factor in grumpiness may be ageism. None of us deals well with being treated as though we are invisible, or incompetent, or brainless. There is some interesting research showing that attitudes toward aging have a powerful effect on both our mental and physical health as we age. Even after you control for health issues, those who had negative attitudes about aging when they were fifty are more likely to be unhappy and unhealthy decades later. Trying to find the silver linings and the moments of pleasure in our daily lives not only makes us easier to be around; it also has a positive effect on our mental and physical health. As others have said, we can't control the cards we are dealt in life, but we don have some control over how we play the hand.

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    1. Ageism is certainly a factor. It is hard to keep a smile on your face when you are thought to think and act a certain way just because of your chronological age. When that happens we can go a long way to defeat that ageism notion just by not conforming to the stereotypes.

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  14. I completely agree with the points ddavidson brought up about depression. It is a problem that runs in my family, and sadly, many people suffering from depression have little insight into their condition or think that is is “weak” to seek help. Depressed people can be very hard to live with because of their irritability and fluctuating moods.

    However, depression aside, I think that many people (especially men) spend their lives motivated to climb the career ladder and come to think that it is their rightful place to manage others and be deferred to. It can be very hard to lose that position of power and respect. In our North American culture, we tend to give our elders little consideration or respect (just look as the poor conditions in old folks homes that have resulted in so many COVID deaths as evidence of the low value we give to the elderly). I’m sure that many people in this situation resent their diminished status, especially if they have few friends and can’t find a new focus for their lives in retirement. Then there are those whose status arose from managing the home (often women) and when that skill set is never acknowledged and no longer wanted but merely seen as interfering behaviour, resentfulness can be the result. Finally, for many (most?) of us, there comes a point in our older years when we realize that we will never achieve those things we spent most of our life striving for, and and we might even realize the goals we put so much effort into were rather pointless (material goods, career advancement), and that too can be hard to take.

    Being grumpy doesn’t solve any of these existential problems. It’s an indicator, rather, of a failure to grow and learn during the last third of life.

    Jude

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    1. Depression in our age group is an important and often overlooked issue. I am glad it has been raised in the comments for this post.

      Grumpiness seems to be one of those things that has so many possible causes. I do tend to run across more grumpy men than women, but this tendency is not reserved for just one sex.

      You have mentioned several reasons for this unpleasantness to appear and those examples really highlight the point that being in the grumpy state can be triggered by both internal and external reasons.

      All that said, we owe it to ourselves, our family and loved ones, and the the people we interact with, to keep it under control. Unless your name is Archie Bunker, being bitter and unhappy is nothing you should air in public.

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