Grumpy Old Men (1993) Walter Matthau & Jack Lemmon
Old Man Yells At Cloud (2002, The Simpsons) Dan Castellaneta
Gran Torino (2008) Clint Eastwood
A Man Called Otto (2022) Tom Hanks
So when did the trope of cranky aging men become a thing? And why do we have so many pejorative words to describe them? Like:
Fogey: a person, typically an old one, who is considered to be old-fashioned or conservative in attitude or tastes.
Curmudgeon: a bad-tempered person, especially an old one.
Codger: an elderly man, especially one who is old-fashioned or eccentric.
Coot: a foolish or eccentric person, typically an old man.
And why do you rarely hear these terms applied to women?
And is there any basis for the stereotype? Do men really become more cantankerous, crotchety, irritable and stubborn as we age?
One theory is that it has to do with a drop in testosterone levels after age 65, but that notion is hotly contested. Other suggested causes include dealing with physical decline, lifetime losses of loved ones, difficulty adapting to changing technology, and dissatisfaction with living arrangements.
The bottom line, though, is that men do appear to get more cranky as we progress in years.
Unfortunately, there is another pathway to curmudgeonhood that is related to dementia.
One of the early signs of dementia is a change in personality. Typical at this stage are increased irritability, reduced frustration tolerance, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, social withdrawal and apathy. (Please remember that for any of these to be considered symptoms, they must reflect a significant change from prior behaviors.)
The cause of these shifts is probably related to a weakening of the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for higher level thinking and has a primary role in modulating our emotions. For example, you can make yourself very angry if you can’t find your car keys and you think your neighbor stole them. Conversely, you can calm yourself down by thinking it through, retracing your steps, and realizing that you left them in your coat pocket. In both cases, the situation is the same: you can’t find your keys. Your emotional and behavioral responses, though, are determined by what you believe about that fact. That’s prefrontal power at work.
That is why I am monitoring my own increasing irritability and decreasing frustration tolerance. I used to be bomb-proof: very few things rattled me. And I could work for hours on a project with little progress and still not get frustrated. Now, though, I’m aware that I don’t have the patience I used to have. When doing crossword puzzles, for example, I’m far quicker to google an answer than I was in the past.
Thinking that this shift may have more to do with testosterone levels than it does with prefrontal atrophy is rather comforting in a lesser-of-evils sort of way.
What’s more, I don’t think I currently meet criteria for curmudgeon, coot, codger or fogey. For the most part, I keep my irritations to myself. I’m not firing off emails to my PBS affiliate complaining about a schedule change. I’m not unleashing a torrent of epithets (albeit creative) at other drivers who don’t signal before cutting into my lane. I keep pushing buttons on the remote until my Roku tv gets me to what I want to stream with the captioning on. If I had a lawn, I’d like to think I wouldn’t be chasing kids off of it.
I’m still interested in politics even though I’ve lost the fire in the belly to actively engage in getting out the vote. I enjoy my daily recorder practice sessions, even though I can’t hit all the notes or play certain passages fast enough. I look forward to watching UConn women’s basketball games twice a week in season…even when they lose two games in a row for the first time in 30 years. Come to think of it, if I ever stop watching, please schedule me for an evaluation!
The results of this most unscientific review, then, suggest that my personality is still intact while showing normal signs of aging. It would appear that I’ve got a ways to go before earning the right to be called a curmudgeon!