Old Fool

A man and woman laying in bed smiling for the camera.

I was young and foolish then; now I am old and foolisher.

~Mark Twain

Aging in Place

I was communicating with a Gerontological scholar and deep thinker recently on the topic of wisdom and age; his take is always fresh and unexpected. He introduced the concept of “gerontological correctness” which means essentially, not being free to criticize older adults on any level. It’s an ‘old’ view on political correctness if you will. Today it is socially acceptable to tout the line “with age comes wisdom,” to think/say otherwise might bring the wrath of ageism down on you (see Ashton Applewhite; This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism).

And yet, we all know, or have witnessed older folks who act in ways that do not actually conjure up visions of wise elders. Even more tragic, are older adults who make foolish decisions with money or their health (organic reasons aside). These sad tales are abundant in the nightly news programs and evidence wisdom does not passively come with age. Hence the idiom; there’s no fool like an old fool–used to say that a foolish old person is especially foolish because an old person should have learned from experience not to make the kind of mistakes a young person makes.

This scholar’s comments question conventional thinking concerning aging and wisdom–then introduce the concept of foolishness:

I’ve been involved with the researchers on wisdom– they bring me in to theirpanels at the gerontological conferences, etc., because they know I will takean “unconventional” view to what they do. I like them and encourage them,but I have my doubts. I personally knew Jim Birren, the originator of contemporary work on wisdom, and I am in touch a lot with Monika Ardelt, who is one of thebest researchers on this subject.

The biggest problem I find with this work is that most researchers do not takea deeply spiritual view of what wisdom consists of: that is, they ignore the perspective adopted by Zen, Sufism, yoga, Kabbalah, etc. That is because wisdom researchersare almost invariably secular people with the usual prejudices against traditionalmysticism.

The second reason I am cautious about wisdom is that I worry that researchers arelooking in the wrong direction. I would like to see more attention tofoolishness and aging: that is, people who act in utterly ridiculous (and funny)ways. Shakespeare reminds us that the Fool is an indispensable part of bothart and life. But gerontology has no place for foolishness. The great exceptionto this was the world-renowned gerontologist Robert Kastenbaum, who I hadthe good fortune to know personally. He was, among other things, a playwright:Zero Mostel performed in his works. Not your conventional academicgerontologist at all. Everything Bob did was unconventional. When asked“When does aging begin?” he answered, in the cradle, with “habituation,”which he defined as the essence of (psychological) aging.

The third reason I am cautious is that foolishness has a profoundly serious adverse side toit: namely, the fact that vast numbers of elders are exploited (“elder abuse”) becausethey make foolish decisions about money, about love, about family– the list isendless. But the gerontological literature sees elders in this case only as victims,without asking deeply about lack of wisdom.

Intentional “Foolishness”

His thoughts reminded me of the complimentary role that wisdom and “foolishness” play in the lives of older people. For example, one of the respondents in my dissertation study on Creativity and Aging, was *JM, a blind artist who at the age of 85 was painting daily. He often wore two different colored socks and I always attributed it to his lack of sight (macular degeneration-it was extremely limited). When I asked him about it one day, he informed me that it was intentional. Wearing 2 different colored socks reminded him to “embrace the other” (he was a WWII vet and gay).At first glance, this might look foolish (what an old fool wearing different colored socks) but it was insightful to the degree only a deep-thinking person, who had been marginalized in life, could create.


Aging is a continuum and how far along you are does not necessarily determine your level of wisdom or foolishness. It is my opinion (the older I get) that like most things in life striking a balance is essential. What might at first glance appear foolish (2 different colored socks) may in fact be wisdom. To know the truth, you must know the context…This is where understanding triumphs over prejudices.


Gray hair is a sign of age, not wisdom.

~Greek Proverb

*JM Initials used for research subject Anonymity

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