I’ve always assumed senior citizens were more inclined to get unduly upset than the rest of us. My assumption was based on a number of stories about distant relatives and family friends, including two couples who came to America on the boat together, even lived in the same neighborhood for 30 years, but stopped talking to each other after one failed to say a proper hello at a dinner party. When one of the husbands died, the other couple was refused entrance at the door of his funeral.

Karl Stampfl

More recently, my grandmother — the most compassionate and understanding person in the world until around the time those Social Security checks started arriving in the mail — demonstrated a typical event in the life of a senior citizen:

“La Grange Village Hall, how can I help you?”

“They haven’t picked up my tree branches yet,” my grandmother said in her thick German accent. She didn’t wait for a response. “Why haven’t they picked up my branches? My grandson wants to cut my lawn but he can’t because they still haven’t picked up my branches.”

“Let me transfer you,” the receptionist said.

“Department of Forestry,” a man answered.

“There’s no Department of Forestry in La Grange,” she said. “Are you people trying to trick me?”

“Ma’am, there actually … ”

“There aren’t even any forests in La Grange,” she said and hung up.

So what, you’re saying, your grandmother’s crazy. Whose isn’t? But wait, the plot thickens.

Like most Americans, I get most of my news from the University’s portal site, www.umich.edu. Just yesterday, I was perusing the stories (University President Mary Sue Coleman’s in China, robots can walk and balance like humans) when I came across an item that piqued my interest: Older people are better at picking their battles.

It’s not very often that you read a headline that completely reverses your preconceived notions about something. You read something like that and “Saddam Hussein friendly, enjoys raisin bran” in the same day, and you realize that it’s time to re-evaluate the way you look at the world.

The study, conducted by the University’s Institute of Social Research, claims that younger people react more aggressively to conflict than older people.

Exactly the opposite of what I’d thought.

I assumed my meandering experience was simply incorrect. The researchers must be right. The ISR has a head start on me when it comes to this sort of thing. So for exactly three hours I believed its survey wasn’t skewed — until my father came home and told me a story about his day as a mail carrier.

The story was about a 97-year-old man on his route who he had known for years. The man and my father had formed a unique friendship. For example, my father sacrificed days off to take him to the track. In return, every time “The Godfather” was on television, the man called our house to alert us, even after the DVDs came out.

The man lives in an apartment building for older people. A couple of months ago, he left his water running in the bathroom all night. The man in the unit below him, a Vietnam vet, called to tell him. The man said, “No, it’s not, and don’t ever call here again.” Two minutes later, the water shut off.

Another conflict between the two men ensued. My father, the building’s unofficial mediator, advised the first man to apologize. The first man said he did, but the Vietnam vet said he hadn’t. When my father approached the first man to tell him this, he accused my dad of calling him a liar.

All right, my father said, I’ll just let it blow over.

Two days later, he found a note from the first man in the mailbox. It read something like this:

Please don’t talk to me anymore. You called me a liar, and you don’t respect me.

P.S. My family hates you too.

I’m not saying the survey is totally flawed — I have great respect for the ISR — but I am wondering where they found all these perfectly amicable elderly people. Maybe they can pass their names on to me. After all, someone needs to teach my grandmother some manners.


Stampfl is a Daily fall/winter administration beat reporter. He can be reached at kstampfl@umich.edu.

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