RLP's Personal Blog

Old People And Preferences

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Old(er) people often get flak for being set in their ways, and the larger the age difference between the person complaining and the person with they’re complaining about, the more likely this seems to be.

Now, sometimes this is just normal difficulty changing, like “grandma refuses to learn how to use email”, which fine, whatever; mental flexibility can certainly reduce as you get older, but I think a more relevant consideration is that the older you are, the fewer cares you have to give about what random other people want you to do with your time.

There’s another category, though, which is when older people have specific, sometimes ritualistic, preferences on how they want things done.

So, like, grandpa put a bowl of milk in the microwave, microwaves it for exactly ten seconds, puts in some cereal, microwaves it for 5 seconds, and then puts in the rest of the cereal, and woe betide anyone who messes with grandpa’s cereal ritual.

I feel like there’s a bunch of options for what’s going on here, but what almost always happens is a young(er) person will decide that one of these is definitely what’s happening, and proceed as though that were true, and grandpa maybe doesn’t know anymore exactly why he does it this way (so he can’t explain it) or just doesn’t care about the jabbering of whoever’s bugging him (so he doesn’t explain it).

I am writing this so that you, gentle reader, might in future consider all of these possibilities, and be aware that this probably isn’t even a complete list:

  1. It may actually be a pointless ritual, in the way that sports fans always wear their red socks on game day or whatever. Something they did one time and just kind of kept doing it, something they learned from a parent and they have no idea why, etc, etc. In which case you have to ask yourself: does it even matter? Why not let them do their pointless thing?
  2. It may be a pointless ritual into which they are really trapped. In other words it may be an OCD behaviour, literally (actual clinical OCD) or figuratively (just one weird behaviour they’ve gotten stuck with). The thing that distinguishes this option from the “harmless ritual” option is that it’s really impacting their life and that if they could stop they would be much happier. Usually getting out of these kinds of traps requires medication. Most people don’t really have this option as something they consider; they’ll see the person as stubborn instead of trapped. People who are aware of this option tend to over-correct and see trapped people everywhere, which can be pushy and demeaning so keep an eye out for that.
  3. It may be a hard-won preference. This is the option that young people tend to just not even consider or imagine, but FYI if you’ve been alive for 40+ years you’ve had a LOT of time to try things and experiment with options and see what they really like. Very young people tend not to think of this because the idea of just doing weird stuff to see if you like it hasn’t really occurred to them yet. Slightly older people are used to trying weird and different thigs but they haven’t had the time to construct complex structures of things they prefer, and they also tend to have weird beliefs about doing things differently for its own sake. It’s only in like your mid-30s that most people have (1) realized that there’s nothing stopping you from eating cake for breakfast, (2) have actually tried it and (3) found out why people mostly don’t do that, but once you’ve been through that process you start trying subtler, more complex things to see if you like them better. Maybe grandpa has tried literally dozens or hundreds of ways to prepare his cereal over the years and this way is the specific way that maximizes his enjoyment. Bear in mind that two hundred tries over a 40 year adult lifespan (so, 60 years old) is only one change every ten weeks; there are 2080 weeks in 40 years, so thousands of attempts are entirely possible. So consider the possibility that maybe grandpa worked hard to develop his ritual, and maybe he doesn’t want to spend 20 minutes listing out the exact reasons and all the other things he tried along the way because it’s too much work, and maybe you should just take his word for it.