For years I raged against the word “cute” whenever the nurses at our medical clinic used the word to describe an especially lively or charming older patient.
“No!” I would insist. “That 80-year-old woman is a tough cancer survivor. She’s fit and smart. She has a spontaneous sense of humor. She’s not cute! She’s old. My 3-year-old grandchild is cute.”
The nurses understood my point, that “cute” is condescending. These were well-educated, savvy women in their 30s and 40s. Nobody would ever call them cute. They tried to avoid the word. But sometimes they slipped, and we joked about it.
I retired from my job as clinic administrative assistant in 2012. And then I kind of forgot about these conversations.
Then, one Saturday night, my husband and I went to a play with a pair of friends, Janet and Richard, at a theater in downtown Minneapolis. I made a 10 p.m. reservation at a nearby restaurant for an after-theater dinner. My son and daughter-in-law had given me a gift certificate for this particular restaurant, one of their favorites.
When we arrived a few minutes after 10, the bar and restaurant were crowded and noisy. But there was a large, U-shaped booth saved just for us. So the four of us scrunched together in the bowl of the U. Why so close? Because two of us wear hearing aids and a third was probably overdue for testing.
We drank wine and beer and discussed the play. We disagreed on whether the staging complemented the actors’ abilities. We shared tasty appetizers, laughed about the behaviors of our pet dogs, briefly discussed the cancer treatment one of us would begin the following week and devoured a delicious array of salads, pastas and meats.
Near midnight, the crowd in the restaurant thinned out a bit, making conversation more feasible. We stayed on. I had another glass of wine. My husband, Clyde, ordered a cup of coffee and we all considered dessert.
That’s when a young man approached our table to introduce himself. At first, I thought he might be the assistant manager, because he started saying he was glad we were enjoying ourselves.
Then I got it straight. His name was John, and here’s what he said: “My friends and I are sitting in that booth across the room, and we’ve noticed that you really seem to be having a great time. I just came over to say how much you’ve added to our own fun this evening.” Or something like that.
We said, “Oh, thanks! We are having a good time.”
I looked at our little group of four: Janet and I wear our white hair in short, soft styles. Clyde and Richard are really quite bald. Some of us wear glasses. All of us have creases and wrinkles on our faces and blue veins running along the backs of our hands.
Oh, no, I thought, we’re sitting here being “cute.”
The next day I talked with my younger sister in Denver. She told me about the new man in her life, someone she met via a “matchup website for old people.” She especially appreciated him because he loved to dance, and so did she. They’d been going to clubs for about three months and had been approached numerous times by young people who appreciated their dancing. Hmmm.
We agreed that even my sister, now in her 60s, had become “cute.”
At first I felt a little crabby about the unsolicited attention. Now I’ve changed my mind.
I’m worried about the young people. They apparently have many troubles — you know, with insecure jobs and shaky relationships. Some of them have children of their own — and raising children is awfully stressful. So many young people appear fearful about the future. Maybe they’re worried they’re not saving enough for their kids’ college and their own retirements. Maybe they’re indulging in binge-drinking or other escapist behaviors.
I think that we, as older adults with years of experience, owe it to younger adults to model healthy aging. I’m calling upon all people over the age of 60 to go out and do something that will be noticed and admired by young people. I once read that actress Shirley Jones chose to sky-dive on her 80th birthday. That’s one idea. And it’s beyond cute.
The rest of us don’t need to jump out of aircraft. But we can stay out really late on occasion. We can kiss or hold hands in public — a subtle signal that old age can include love and tenderness.
Engage with friends. Laugh out loud. Dance.
Go for it. Become cute. Perhaps a young person’s burden will be lightened.
Lucia Wilkes Smith is a longtime activist working for peace and social justice. In her North Side neighborhood she teaches creative writing through Minneapolis Community Education.