On Ageism: ‘Old Age Did Not Make Me Shoplift the Vaseline’

Eric Green



Serving as a prelude before discussing the serious larger issue of ageism further below, this true story began when the itchiness on my senior-citizen body made it almost impossible to sleep that night. My wife advised buying Vaseline petroleum jelly at the supermarket, which she maintained would solve the problem.


The brand of Vaseline I needed was sold out. But the store attendant found by the toothpaste section a midget-sized jar of the stuff that would fit in a small medicine travel bag.


It was probably 10 seconds later when I realized I had already lost the jar. I searched up and down the aisles, thinking it had fallen through the shopping cart onto the floor. No dice. Where did it go?



It wasn’t until I got home that I discovered the jar in the right-hand pocket of my jeans. Unintentionally, I had shoplifted it. Would the authorities check their surveillance cameras and have a swat team, with their patrol car sirens blaring, bang down the door to my apartment, shackle my feet and arms, and throw me in the paddywagon?


I consider myself an honest person, almost to a fault. So the next morning, I went back to the store to pay for the jar, where I summoned the young associate manning customer service to explain what happened, probably ad nauseam, as his expression turned to bewilderment or stupefaction when I related how it was all a purely innocent mistake that I wanted to rectify. His face went blank when I asked if I could have the senior discount on the price, $3.80, especially since I thought it shouldn’t cost more than 50 cents. He muttered something unintelligible and I said never mind about that.


I know what this young associate must have groaned to himself: Here we go again having to deal with another difficult old-space cadet. Given how all this went down, I can say jokingly that I’m lucky the associate didn’t have me arrested for being a troublemaker.


But there are even crazier things that can happen, such as the day I thought I had lost my cellphone before realizing I was holding it while making a call.



Some might contend aging is the reason for all this hoopla, but I believe the real culprit for why I accidentally shoplifted the petroleum jelly was because I had too many crosscurrent things on my mind; I was dealing with too much stress; and being exhausted from no sleep can make anybody act foolish. In other words, don’t blame old age for what happened.


These events are a reminder of that funny, but all too common negative portrayal of seniors on TV, such as “Seinfeld,” when the elderly cantankerous Uncle Leo is caught shoplifting books. As the authorities arrest him for petty larceny, Uncle Leo squawks that he’s old, confused, that he too deserves a senior citizen discount on the book.


The truth is, Uncle Leo was just using old age as an illegitimate excuse for his trying to steal the books, rather than he was just cheap, or a kleptomaniac.


Movies are no better in depicting seniors negatively, such as the 1979 flick “Going in Style,” where three old bored guys living on the dole rob a bank to make their lives more exciting. A remake of the film was released in 2017. The films stereotype old people as either pitiful or loathsome, due to loneliness or having evil intent.



One important facet on stereotyping elders is how older women are portrayed. A January 2022 article by Sophie Hayssen for the Women’s Media Center said the entertainment industry “has neglected older women and fixated on female youth from the early days of classic Hollywood through to the 21st century.” Studies have shown, she wrote, that women entertainers’ careers peak at 30, while men’s peak over 15 years later.


An opinion piece in The Guardian pleaded with marketing and media industries “to give older women a break. Stop basing everything you do on the assumption that we're all embittered old hags, spending every waking moment yearning for lost youth….please stop treating the entirely natural process of aging as though it is a crime, a personal failing or a disease with a cure--it isn't.” 


The World Health Organization says ageism--prejudice or discrimination against the elderly--costs society billions of dollars in productivity. In announcing the launch of its Health Aging Collaborative in September 2022, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “to realize the promise of the United Nations Decade of Healthy Aging, governments, non-government organizations, business associations, philanthropic foundations and universities must work together…to add years to life, and life to years.”  



Meanwhile, AARP, working in partnership with Getty Images, enlisted photographers to shoot older Americans in a more accurate view of aging, collecting more than a thousand photographs of older adults in active lifestyles.  


On that vein, at 74, I’m still regularly swimming, and playing golf with my friends: Mort, 83, and Bill, 76, while on the celebrity beat, my favorite ex-Beatle, Paul McCartney, who is 80, continues to give concerts and practices yoga to keep fit in mind and body. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 79, haven’t stopped rockin’, and on the political front, Joe Biden, 80, is of course, president of the United States.


Which makes me believe that it’s past time we retire aging as a negative concept. It used to be that people at age 40 were considered old and a burden on society, but now calling 40 over the hill sounds ridiculous -- when instead it's celebrated as when life truly begins. To quote from one of the Rolling Stones’ most famous songs, ending the negative stereotyping of older people and giving them their proper due would be, personally speaking, a great source of “Satisfaction.”


Author Bio:

Eric Green, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a former newspaper reporter, U.S. congressional press aide, English-as-a-second-language teacher, and now a freelance writer in the Washington D.C. area. His articles have appeared in various newspapers and websites, including the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.


Image Sources:

--Kampus Production (Pexels, Creative Commons)

--Jonathan Bayer (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Dick Thomas Johnson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Cottonbro Studio (Pexels, Creative Commons)


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