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The reasons behind Grumpy Old Man syndrome

Men face realities that follow their transition into ‘elderhood’

I was walking my dog down the street, when a red-faced 60-something man pulled over and shouted, “Hey!”

I stopped and turned.

“Keep your dog off of my lawn!” he shouted.

Two important facts to note:

(1) We were not on his lawn.

(2) We had not been on anybody’s lawn. We were walking in the street.

What I had just witnessed was a variation on the classic, “You kids get off my lawn!” syndrome, so typical of 60-something Grumpy Old Men. I immediately recognized him as the stereotypical member of my own age group: The Guy Who is Irritated by Everything.

As we continued walking down the pavement, I made a silent resolution to myself: I will never allow myself to become a Grumpy Old Man.

But in order to keep this resolution, I needed to look into some of the reasons that 50- and 60-something men turn into Oscar the Grouch. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is understandable – terrifyingly understandable – why men my age start to turn sour.

The most obvious reason is this: At this age, we have more to be irritated about.

Let’s begin with the physical aspects. Most of us have spent our lives taking pride in at least some aspect of our physical capacities. Some of us have been proud of our bench-press strength. Some of us have been proud of our speed, or our agility, or our ability to eat four hot dogs in a row and wash it down with a pitcher of Kokanee.

Watch Rebecca Nappi talk about this story with KHQ’s Ken McGrath
Spokane, North Idaho News

It doesn’t matter what we were good at. The point remains the same: We are not as good at it any more.

Also, there are the aches, pains, syndromes and indignities that come with age. Our prostates act up. Our once ironclad stomachs get delicate. We have more trouble sleeping. For a full list of all of the maladies that beset men as they age, just watch the pharmaceutical commercials during the evening news: Acid reflux. Joint pain. Erectile dysfunction. Frequent urination. (No wonder we get so easily pissed off.)

Then there are the changes that come in our family lives and work lives. For decades, our identity has been tied to our children and our jobs. Then, our kids leave home and we retire. What do we have left?

And finally, there is the fact that the world is changing around us, and rarely to our high standards. Aging men, in particular, succumb to the nearly irresistible temptation to look at The World These Days and find it hopelessly screwed up.

The government is on the wrong track, taxes are too high, kids have no respect, athletes are on performance-enhancing drugs, the world has gone Twitter-mad, your computer locks up, your cellphone drives you insane and everybody else’s cellphone drives you even more insane.

Just thinking about all of this was getting me, yes, irritated. With all of this evidence of decline, how can we not be grumpy?

Grouchiness explained

Clearly, I needed to look at this issue a little more scientifically. So I discovered that, according to the Mayo Clinic, men at this age experience a slow and continuous decrease in testosterone production.

This is a completely normal phenomenon – yet for some men, the decrease is particularly steep. An NBC News report recently quoted urologist Dr. Ridwan Shabsigh, head of the International Society of Men’s Health, as saying that low testosterone can have “neural/psycho effects,” and one of those is “low mood and irritability.”

In other words, it is a contributing factor in something called Irritable Male Syndrome, a genuine medical condition, for which the poster boy is Donald Trump.

Irritable Male Syndrome is virtually identical to Grumpy Old Man syndrome. So maybe I shouldn’t simply dismiss the “you-kids-get-off-my-lawn” guy as someone who simply needs to get a better attitude. What I needed to do was find a knowledgeable person who could explain more fully why men my age get so irritable, and more importantly, what we can do to prevent it.

Fortunately, I knew exactly the man to turn to: Spokane author Michael Gurian. He has spent a lifetime studying and writing about our journeys through life – often with an emphasis on male psychology. His most recent book, “The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty” (Atria Books/Simon and Schuster, $26), addresses how men and women age differently – and why men sometimes turn sour.

First of all, Gurian confirmed that low testosterone can, in fact, be one of the culprits. Starting at about the mid-40s or 50s, every man’s testosterone levels begin to decrease, and sometimes the decrease is precipitous around age 60.

“The whole system is robbed of a chemical that it based its life on for the first 50 years,” said Gurian. “It can create irritability. And a lot of us get kind of depressed. Females can get immensely irritated, too. But when they are depressed, they evidence it in crying and talking. Males tend to use anger more.”

Or to put it another way: Women fret, men yell.

So, are those ubiquitous testosterone supplements the solution? Nope. It’s not that easy. First, as the Mayo Clinic notes, “whether treatment is necessary is a matter of debate.” Second, there are many, many other reasons why men get grumpy.

Some are physical. Men who are overweight and don’t exercise tend to be more irritable as they age, probably because they have more to be irritated about. They lose even more of their athletic identity.

“That’s a really big stressor for guys,” said Gurian. “It’s a rite of passage, where the body changes and you can’t do what you want to do.”

This is not just about sports. Some guys lose something they feel is even more vital – which is why Viagra is such a big seller. Men use it to “put off that identity shift,” as Gurian puts it, into their older selves.

However, the deeper causes of Grumpy Old Man syndrome lie in the emotional and psychological realms. Men go through divorces. They have grown children in rehab. They retire and lose their workplace identity.

“With anything that’s really tough, guys will tend to ‘fight or flight,’ ” said Gurian, who is also a marriage and family counselor. “Some of the fight stuff is anger. Some of the flight stuff is withdrawal.”

That’s partly why men experience more quick bursts of anger in their 50s and 60s. There’s “nothing inherently wrong with male anger,” Gurian said. However, if your “quick bursts” go from once a week to a few times every day? Well, now you’re entering full-blown Guy Who Gets Irritated by Everything territory.

Resist the stereotype

Now that we know a little more about the causes, the question remains: How can we avoid turning into Grumpy Old Men?

The key, according to Gurian, is making a true identity shift. Between the ages of 50 and 65, every man needs to “let go of our lost youth.” Our youth really is gone and not coming back. We all need to create new, more age-appropriate identities for ourselves.

Gurian, who is 55, illustrates this with an example from his own athletic life. He used to be a soccer player. Soccer was an important part of his male identity. Then soccer just started getting harder and harder on his aging body.

Every man who has loved, say, softball or basketball, knows this problem. You get into your 50s, and suddenly, your favorite sport becomes, mostly, an excellent way to rupture an Achilles tendon.

Just about the same time, Gurian noticed that he was having those telltale quick bursts of anger, maybe a little too often. He started making a conscious effort to begin an identity shift into his older self. He realized that by staying with soccer, he was keeping himself “immature.”

“I had to stop playing soccer,” said Gurian. “Now I walk twice a day. I had to fully shift away from intense sports.”

The important thing is to shift your energy into something. Maybe you can coach the sport you love. Maybe you can turn to golf, a sport easier on the tendons. But don’t just sit on the couch and do nothing.

Similar shifts may have to take place when it comes to relationships, or sex, or your spiritual life. In his book, Gurian talks about men who “repositioned their intentions, read poetry, went fishing, formed a circle of friends, took on new hobbies, found places to volunteer and feel useful.” Every man needs to make these kinds of shifts between the ages of 50 and 65.

“So that by 65, we’re there,” said Gurian. “We’ve moved into a stage of life that is pure elderhood.”

Well, I’m not crazy about that term “elderhood.” Yet the process described by Gurian makes absolute sense. You must stop clinging to your youthful self, and accept your new, older self. It all boils down to an old-fashioned, yet wise concept: aging gracefully.

So here’s the secret to not turning into a Grumpy Old Man: Shift your still not-inconsiderable energies into new, constructive pursuits – ones that make sense for a 60-year-old man. Otherwise, you’ll waste all of your energy patrolling your yard and yelling at kids to get the hell off it.

Finally, I could not resist asking Gurian one crucial question: Is there anything inherently wrong with telling kids to get off your lawn?

“No,” he said, laughing. “Kids need us to help set their boundaries.”

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