Daily WTF: When Old People Insist They Know History — But Don’t

Confused Old PersonA part of my job is to work with the elderly (which means anyone from 55 to 102). I actually really enjoy it as elderly, mobility-restricted people are very grateful and gracious when your job is to deliver their books, especially if you do so in bad weather with a good-natured grimace. Their conversations are usually very lively, sprinkled with gems about their past, their interests, and sometimes morbidly funny/sad evidence of their creeping dementia. Working with them is about 80% pure feel-good, but every once in a while I overhear some real doozies that leave me wondering if there’s been a carbon monoxide leak somewhere.

Take the one woman whose college professor (of some 30+ years ago) told her that the word “Fuck” was an acronym that only came into the English language in the 17th century. You can look up the whole story here on Snopes, which is what I did while she was talking and how I knew within 10 seconds that she was wrong (Also, I’ve dabbled in linguistics, languages, etymology, and history – I know it has Old Germanic roots.). But despite the absurdity of the assertion, this woman was utterly convinced that she was right and spent a good 10 – 15 minutes educating her credulous neighbors while I did my very best to hold my tongue and keep shelving books.

Or the man who started his conversation with “I hate to agree with the Nazis but…” and then proceeded to browbeat his friend until he had him agreeing that Stalin was responsible for the Russian Empire’s landholdings and Nazism was solely about expanding Germany’s economy (I have to hand it to the second man though – he really tried to get a word in edgewise at first.). Meanwhile, I’m 20 feet away trying not to explode because I’ve spent the past two years researching the Soviet Union in World War II and really want to set him straight.

Because the thing is, you really can’t set older people straight and attempting to do is inviting a headache at best or a full-blown argument at worse. Still, I find many older people’s misconceptions about history baffling. So many elderly spend so much time getting up-to-date on current events but rely exclusively on their memory to understand the past. Is it because many aren’t comfortable with the way we access history now, looking it up online, watching documentaries and Youtube clips, and getting on library web sites to request distant research materials? Or is it because there’s so much new to learn that they don’t want to “waste time” revisiting materials they “know”? Or is it pure obstinacy and a slavish possessiveness of their own authority in the face of younger generations?

Whatever the reason, at least they’re keeping me entertained. I appreciate that when I’ve been up all night reading books about Operation Barbarossa and Hitler’s plan to exterminate a full 2/3s of the Soviet population. I need the laugh.

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