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Cards Make Fun of Aging

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am disturbed by the lack of choices for birthday cards. I tried to buy a card for my 75-year-old friend and found most of the cards in poor taste and not very funny. I am 72 and certainly do not feel old or look like anyone on those cards. At what point do birthday cards convey humor or insult?

Answer: Your question motivated me to visit a local card store and check out birthday cards that mentioned aging. Most were negative, with a few neutral ones. Themes of the cards were an indication of what people fear most about aging – their possible physical and mental decline. Here are a few examples:

  • “Don’t worry about getting older, just roll with the `paunches.’ “
  • “You know you are getting older when it takes twice as long to look half as good.”
  • “Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can’t remember them either.”
  • “You know you are getting older when your back goes out more than you do.”

Here’s a positive one:  “Girlfriend – when we’re older we’re going to be SOB’s – spectacular older babes.”

Humor is important. We are amused. It helps us deal with the stresses of life, is a form of pure enjoyment and taps our creativity and “funny bone.” The danger of discussing humor is that when we dissect it and analyze it, it may no longer be funny. So please read this without losing your sense of humor. Consider it a brief “anatomy of humor and aging” that should not detract from one of the pleasures of life – laughter.

Humor is reported to be therapeutic. Norman Cousins found that laughing at old comedy movies helped cure him of a degenerative spinal condition. We all have heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine.”

There have been studies of the therapeutic effect of humor on older patients. Male patients recovering from cataract surgery who had the highest scores on a humor survey recovered the fastest. Older residents of an apartment building who watched “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” increased their sense of well-being.

Believe it or not, aging and humor has been an area of scientific inquiry. Erdmore B. Palmore, professor emeritus of sociology at Duke University, studied attitudes toward aging through humor. He analyzed more than 250 jokes about aging and classified them according to positive or negative views of older people. He concluded that more than half of the jokes reflected negative views of aging or elders, and only one-quarter were clearly positive.

Others who have examined jokes, cartoons and birthday cards reached the same conclusion. That is, that most humor reflects or supports negative attitudes toward aging and that positive humor is rare.

Why the negative approach?  Palmore suggests that denial provides the basis of much humor. One of the most famous was Jack Benny’s assertion that he was only 39 … for decades. (Jack Benny was very funny.) Palmore found that denying you are old may have little to do with your chronological age. Rather, it is a denial of the commonly accepted stereotypes of aging.

Dr. Robert Butler, president and CEO of the International Longevity Center, and longtime leader in gerontology, writes that denying you are “old” may simply be a statement that you still feel as healthy, strong and vigorous as you did in your younger years. He points out that the “problem (occurs) when this good feeling is called `youth’ rather than `health,’ tying it to chronological age instead of physical and mental well-being.”

There were four birthday cards for those celebrating their 100th birthday.  And the messages were wonderful.  Here is one example:  “100 years old and you are simply…a wonderful woman, a faithful friend, a generous spirit, a charming soul, a loyal confidant, a compassionate being, a friendly face, a cheerful smile and a fun personality.  A truly special person…may your birthday be as wonderful as you.”

Some of the words were in pink; the envelope was the same color. The card was smaller than standard size and cost $3.95.  The card was designed for a woman; about four out of five centenarians are women. The salesperson said these cards usually sell-out.

In 2007 Hallmark reported sales of 85,000 centenarian birthday cards.  In that same year, there were about 82,000 centenarians.   The future of the Hallmark centenarian-card business is promising.  The latest projection form the U.S. Census Bureau is that centenarians will number about 1.1 million in 2050.  Aging, indeed, is a business opportunity.

The good news did not stop at centenarian birthday cards. The store I visited had four different cards for reaching 90, six cards for 80th birthdays and  five cards for celebrating a 70th birthday.

Based on the jokes listed in Erdmore B. Palmore’s book, Ageism:  Negative and Positive, here are a few examples classified as negative humor:

Appearance: “An old lady in a nursing home decided to streak down the hall and through the dining room.  One man asks another, ‘What did she have on?’  Answer, ‘I don’t know, but whatever it was, it sure was wrinkled.’”

Longevity: “A host greets an 80-year-old visitor:  ‘We’re glad to have you here.’  ‘At my age I’m glad to be anywhere,’ he responded.”

Birthday cards:
“Don’t just sit there.  If someone calls you old, run over them with your wheelchair.”

“An elderly couple had a ritual of touching hands each night in bed before going to sleep.  One night the husband did not reach over to touch hands.  The wife asked, ‘Aren’t we going to touch hands tonight?’  ‘Not tonight dear, I’m too tired.’”

And here are several classified as positive humor:

Old maids:
“An old maid is a woman who has missed the opportunity of getting a divorce.”

Sexuality: “A doctor tells as 70-year old patient that she is pregnant.  She calls her 80-year old husband and says, ‘Honey, I’m pregnant!’  “The husband cautiously asks, ‘Who is calling?’”

Longevity: “A reporter was interviewing a man on his 100th birthday.  ‘Have you lived here all of your life?”  “‘Not yet!’”

Wisdom: At age 20 we don’t care what the world thinks of us; at 40 we worry about what the world thinks of us; at 60 we discover the world wasn’t thinking of us at all.”

It  is important for all of us to be aware of subtle ageism.  And humor can make it socially acceptable.  However, it also is important not to take ourselves too seriously.  At times, we all need to laugh at ourselves.

If we wonder why American society often looks upon its older citizens in a negative way, humor gives us a clue.  If you feel strongly about the birthday cards or jokes you are reading or hearing, express your concern to the card manufacturer, author, comedian, e-mail correspondent or friend.  You will be doing all of us a good service.

Thank you for your good question and please continue to have a good chuckle.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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