Where has our sympathy gone as we age? 189



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My mother is one of the most unsympathetic people I’ve ever met. I often go to her and tell her about something, and she’ll give me a very matter-of-fact response. You see, my mum doesn’t feel sympathy any more – she’s been through it all, apparently. But is this a common thing as we age?

I remember when Steve Irwin died, my mum told me that Terry Irwin obviously didn’t feel upset about her husband’s death. Despite having no way of knowing that, she wrote Terry off as an unsympathetic cow and constantly would talk about how she wasn’t expressing her sadness and that must have meant she wasn’t grieving. It was a cruel thing to say but that is just Mum – she doesn’t seem to know or care about whether what she says is rational or not, she just says it. Similarly, one of our family friends’ husband left her for another woman. Instead of consoling her, Mum tried to think of all the reasons the friend’s husband could have left her. She decided it was because she didn’t give him enough sex, and tried to remind me that the same thing would happen to me if I didn’t give my partner what he needed. Women can’t just expect to have a husband if they don’t give them what they want, she would say. But she isn’t the only person I know who has this callous way of responding to news they should be sympathetic about.

My husband’s aunt is much the same and, as she is a twin, she is still a regular fixture in our family get-togethers. If someone dies, she’ll find a way to shrug it off and to imply that she has been through it so no one else needs a chance to grieve. She got over it, so everyone else should. When her best friend’s son died, she told her a year later that it was time to get over it and move on. That is very nasty and it shocked me to hear it, although it didn’t surprise me. It is as if they can’t see two sides to an argument and they don’t want to. They like giving the hardline because it’s quick and no nonsense.

Why are some people so bitter in their later years? When I searched for an answer, I found something very interesting in a response to a Quora question: “A few months ago, my Chinese friend was explaining some new vocabulary to me. A person who is “round” is very easy to get along with, but a person “with corners” is rigid and unpleasant. I tried to practice the new vocabulary in a sentence and said, “As people get older, they get corners”, but she said, “No, that’s not right. As people get older, they become wise”. In Chinese culture, people gain respect as they age. Their experiences give them wisdom, and they are an important part of the family. They don’t get bitter. In [Western] culture, people lose respect as they age. They’re no longer vibrant go-getters or visionary early adopters; they’re “dinosaurs”. They’re ignored, left alone in empty houses, or even worse, mocked”.

Could this be why we have some bitter and sad people in society? Do they simply feel lonely and unwanted and use their bitterness or lack of empathy as a defence mechanism? Tell us what you think below.

Guest Contributor

  1. As do I Carolyn, but I also have family contact and 6 grandsons some of whom I see daily.

    I can recall my children trying to make me old when I was in my fifties. The smart Alec comments, the jokes etc., and I had to pull their heads in.

    My 78 year old neighbour lives alone. She has family but they’re all “too busy”. Perhaps the Chinese have a point. When we dump our elderly we show a complete lack of understanding, compassion and empathy. When we show no regard for their feelings it’s a bit rich to expect them to be all over someone else’s.

    2 REPLY
    • You are so right. I work in aged care and hear about all the families who are too buddy to visit. Makes me mad.
      These people weren’t too busy for us as we grew up, they stopped their lives to give us a good one.

    • I saw this too Anne when I worked in Homecare for 20 years. Many times the only time some were visited was when they died to divvy up the spoils. It used to really make me mad. As I always told myself ,I hope your children are taking notes on how you treat your parents and hope that they treat you the same when the time comes. We will all get there one day.

  2. I have sympathy but when i listen to people who are getting the super and working and can hardly manage because they carn’t stop spending not so sympathetic.I sat there and listened to this at a party the other night from a woman saying she has never even been able to save $20 a week.

  3. That is definitely not the norm…. I have sympathy to give to whomever needs it , I am 63 , most of my friends are sympathetic aswell.

  4. I love the Chinese take on this. Some appear to have no sympathy but maybe it is the shell we sometimes put around us. I think her mother was more negative than anything else. Sympathy for all can lead to a feeling of depression. Feeling too sorry can only evoke sadness. I often read or hear of an event that will bring me to tears but don’t dwell on it. Sympathy is in us all, just displayed differently.

  5. I’m 75 and consider myself sympathetic to genuine situations but there are so many unscrupulous people who will spin you a tale of hardship when they neednt! Then I call myself cynical?

    1 REPLY
    • No Jude Turner you are not cynical, you are smart. Stay aware of these people!

  6. It is hard getting older really have to work on choosing your mental state – I find gratitude is the best choice and think ‘don’t have long to go may as well enjoy it. Also get a better understanding and tolerance of the young but will never be able to understand animal cruelty and will fight until my last breath to try to stop the horrific cruelty involved in live export of our animals

    1 REPLY
  7. These poor women. Have they ever been loved?. This is definitely not the norm. I know lots of sympathetic elderly people. Loneliness is a real problem in the elderly though. I am in my sixies and have a wonderful caring family who are always asking for advice, which we are happy to give in.

    1 REPLY
    • I agree it not the norm. I cry at the drop of a hat. If I hear a sad story or know of someone struggling I’m a mess… But I’d rather be that way than hard and unsympathetic.

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