What?... An Honest Look
LOOK AT ME AND STOP MUMBLING
by Charlotte Epstein
There’s a lot of talk these days about the growing size
of the over-65 set, and how this increase in the number of old
people will demand new services and more money. So far, almost
no changes have been made to accommodate an old population; everyone
seems to be waiting for the baby boomers to get old before serious
consideration is given to problems of adapted housing, home care,
nursing homes, and assisted care facilities. Certainly, no one
is talking about problems of everyday interaction between old
people and those who aren’t old yet.
Take, for example, the fact that many old people discover that
their hearing is no longer as acute as it was twenty years ago.
Most of them – after the first dismaying awareness that
words often need to be repeated before their meaning registers
– shrug philosophically and go on with their lives. So what
if you have to ask that a word or a sentence be repeated. Young
people also sometimes ask for a word they’ve missed; no
one immediately suggests they need hearing aids.
I remember once a young man was fussing to adjust the sound on
a television. “Let it go,” his hostess protested.
“That’s the clearest you can get in this high-rise
“Oh, you know,” he said to his wife as he continued
to fiddle with the knobs, “With her hearing problem she
can’t tell when there’s something wrong with the sound.”
That tore it for the old woman. She lit into him and convinced
him – not that there was nothing wrong with her hearing
– but that he would be well advised to stop attributing
every acoustic problem to her slightly diminished hearing efficiency.
To date, his conversations with her have been clear, articulate,
and satisfying. His response to her occasional “What?”
is an ungrudging repetition, and he never speaks about her in
her presence in the third person, as if she were stone deaf.
I’ve seen people driven to get hearing aids – which,
incidentally, don’t work well and cause more problems than
they solve – because they’ve said “What?”
once too often.
Once I saw a man remove his hearing aids before answering the
phone. “Why?” I asked him.
“They don’t work on the phone,” he said.
“You can hear without them?”
“Oh yes,” he said.
Then why, I wondered, did he bother having those things in his
It seemed that his children had insisted that he didn’t
always hear what they were saying!
I suggest he didn’t always want to hear what they were
saying. He’d never had any trouble hearing what his friends
At a "wine and conversation" party the other evening,
I saw an attractive seventy-year-old woman almost whisper her
conversation because the hearing aids prevented her from hearing
herself talk, and she worried about speaking too loudly. At the
same party, a man with a hearing aid kept fiddling with the damn
thing in his ear, trying endlessly to adjust the sound. Another
person, whose hearing was no more efficient than the woman's or
the man's, participated in the conversation, occasionally asking
for a word to be repeated, without fussing with a technology that
was no way near efficient. "I've got a hearing aid,"
she told me once. "I never use it."
No one cares to stop for a second and repeat a word. Just as
no one cares to write for old people (Newspapers and TV shows
are aimed at a demographic that excludes anyone over fifty.),
manufacture for them (Clothes are designed with no attempt to
build on earlier styles, and show a little consideration for tastes
that were formed in other times.) And if an old person finds the
new styles attractive and dares to wear an uneven hem or an unconventional
color combination, she is looked on as demented. Manufacturers
advertise nothing to old people except medicines - as if they
have no life separate from real or imagined infirmities.
I admit it – I’m old. And I’m furious about
it. Not because old age can’t be as interesting, as productive,
as comfortable as middle age or youth, but because younger people
seem determined to make it dull, boring, and uncomfortable for
us. There are admonitions not to go out of the house when it’s
cold, when it rains, when it snows, when it’s hot. There
are assurances that you no longer need to work so hard at whatever
it is you want to do. And there is the constant insistence that
you can’t hear what they’re saying – as if their
words were pure gold and not to be wasted.
Let me tell the world that’s not yet old: If you want to
say something to me, then look at me and say it. Looking at your
feet when you speak, or mumbling into the distance won’t
get an answer from me. The mindless interjections of teenagers,
like “Y’know,” “Whatever,” “Y’know
what I’m sayin’,” interspersed with an occasional
phrase that makes sense, don’t constitute communication.
The low-voiced exchanges by younger couples when they’re
part of a small group are not acceptable social behavior. Even
though their age peers in the group can hear what they’re
saying and often become part of their conversations, the old person
in the group sits mute and frustrated because the original exchanges
were barely murmured.
In a group of old people, we speak to one another. If we can’t
hear something, we ask for it to be repeated. The objective is
to communicate intelligibly – with everyone included.
I will continue to say “What?” when I want something
repeated – not like so many people who really don’t
give a damn what you’re saying because they’re just
waiting for you to shut up so they can say what they have to say.
What an interesting idea: A growing population with sub-acute
hearing may teach a new generation to articulate their words and
speak in understandable sentences if they want to be taken seriously.
Maybe it’s time to get honest about this business of getting
old: You die young or you get old. When you’re old you still
go to restaurants, movies and theaters. Old people like to dress
well, eat well, and drink. They socialize, enjoy nature, and laugh
at jokes. And they say “What?” when they want a word
repeated – because they care to know what others are saying
Charlotte Epstein is 83 years old (as of January 2004)
and the author of 18 books and several dozen articles and short
stories. The author’s latest publication is a series of
books for middle schoolers. The series is entitled GETTING ALONG
WITH OTHERS and the first book in the series RESPECT
is available in local bookstores or you can call 800.231.9774
or you can click