Grumpy Old Man Syndrome

age in place

Old men are fond of giving good advice, to console themselves for being no longer in a position to give bad examples.

-François La Rochefoucauld

Ran into Andy at the gym the other morning; he reminded me he’s 76 years old. He followed up with a grumpy-old-man-rant lasting 10 minutes. From politicians to tattoos, few were spared his righteous indignation. Finding it highly amusing and infectious as herpes, I couldn’t help myself; I chimed in too! I told him he sounded like a grumpy old man…

The Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (GOMS)

Several years ago, I gave a series of talks on the topic of “Possibility Aging” based on an experience with Geri-athlete Mavis Lindgren. Following each talk, I’d get folks staying after to ask a question; and inevitably the last one in line was an angry old man not happy about something I said.

I even had one GOM who waited 25 minutes to complain about the perspiration under my arms—I’m NOT joking (gave a talk in a fitness center gym without AC under a skylight with mid-summer sun bearing down on me).

I identified the GOMS when the pattern repeated after several sessions.

White Men Over 80 at Greatest Risk for Suicide

White men over 80 years old are at the greatest risk of all age, gender, and racial groups for suicide. The rate for this group is six times the current overall rate and three times the rate of African American males over 80 years old. This is troublesome because the oldest-old group (85> years) is the most rapidly growing sub-population of elderly adults in the United States.

Where is some of their angst coming from?

The Roleless Role

Men have traditionally identified with work and studies have shown that the more a person’s life revolves around work, the more difficult retirement can be. Retirement often diminishes social contacts and status, placing them in what Meredith Minkler termed “the roleless role;” when older people are “forced to create their own roles in the absence of socially defined ones.”

In my own experience white collar professionals with titles seem to struggle the most. I’ve witnessed MDs who continued to hang around the hospital after retirement. At home the title of “Dr._____” affords less prestige and respect. I once had a physician come up to me after a talk at a continuing care facility, he was crying uncontrollably as he recounted his post-career struggles to find self-respect in a place devoid of meaning and purpose.

Working in a trauma center in South Florida I encountered old men in the waiting rooms not just complaining to each other about their ailments—but “competitive complaining.” Lacking career, hobbies or other interests around which to organize their lives they took on “sick-careers” in an attempt to find meaning in disease, decline and loss of independence.

Suicide and Aging White Masculinity

In an article in Psychology Today, Elana Premack Sandler, LCSW, reports on Psychologist Silvia Canetto commenting about elderly men and suicide:

Canetto theorizes that there is a cultural script for suicidal behavior, or social beliefs and norms about the meaning and permissibility of suicidal behavior. The cultural script defines the scenario – it says who, how, and in what way it is okay to die by suicide.

She used case studies of the suicide deaths of two prominent men, George Eastman (founder of Eastman Kodak) and Hunter S. Thompson (self-proclaimed “Gonzo” journalist) to illustrate how this cultural script plays out.

The deaths of both Eastman and Thompson were viewed by family members and portrayed in the media as rational, planned acts. Both had experienced pain and illness that compromised their independence; their deaths were viewed as honorable choices.

Canetto hypothesizes that it is American culture that contributes to linking suicide with masculinity. Suicide is seen as an act of power for older White men, a way to exercise control over life, even at its end.

Sandler asserts that despite the disproportionate risk of older adult men for suicide it’s only relatively recent that attention has been paid to prevention in this population. She posits that it hasn’t been politically correct to devote more resources to a group which has enjoyed a historically privileged status. And she believes that when speaking in terms of life and death, political correctness isn’t as important as knowing that suicide may be viewed by men as an acceptable way of coping with age-related losses; which is crucial in understanding this population and helping them to live fully within any age.


Grumpy Old Men: On Thin Ice

Help Guide for Depression in Older Adults

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