Why would old people want to talk through a movie, irritating the rest of us?

John Kelly
Columnist December 8, 2013

Old people are starting to bug me. Even so, I’m really going to miss them when they’re gone.

Wait!” I hear you saying. “Where are old people going?”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

I’ll get to that in a second. First, I want to explain my irritation.

Last weekend, My Lovely Wife and I went on one of our regular movie binges: a few days spent going from theater to theater gorging on films.

I’m accustomed to people texting during movies, although, thankfully, I see fewer people doing that these days. What surprised me — at the Avalon for “Captain Phillips” and again at the Landmark E Street during “The Great Beauty” — were the number of people talking.

It wasn’t young people chatting on their phones or shouting “Don’t go near the Horn of Africa!” at the screen. It was old people talking to their seatmates as if they were on the couch at home in front of the television.

I have nothing against the elderly. I just don’t like them — or anyone — talking during my movies. Then I wondered: Might there be some age-related reason for this behavior? Is it possible they couldn’t help themselves? I consulted Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist who is president of the Brain Heath Center in Pittsburgh and does work with AARP.

Nussbaum cautioned me not to jump to conclusions.

“I think the general rule of thumb is that the same kind of variability that exists early in life, adults are going to see later in life,” he said.

That is, if you’re a movie-talker when you’re 24, odds are you’re going to be a movie-talker when you’re 74.

“One wonders if the person was even aware they were having this sort of influence on others,” Nussbaum said. “It might be they can’t hear how loud they are.”

Perhaps, he said, they just need a hearing aid so they can detect whispers.

“It runs the whole gamut,” Nussbaum said of possible explanations. “This may be anything from older adults who maybe don’t get out quite as much, so when they do they might be much more verbose. It may be because the person is a bit disinhibited or impulsive because of neurological reasons.”

He didn’t mean to suggest these people had dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. I certainly don’t think they did.

While Nussbaum said it’s true we lose brain cells as we age, “we have to be careful not to pathologize things, see them as abnormal. It might be a function of loneliness, that the person is supersensitive to human interaction. If that’s not it, it might be the person doesn’t give a hoot, and that’s been their personality style their whole life.”

I actually love old people. They have insights gained from a lifetime of experiences. I enjoy talking with them and learning from them. And that’s why I’m so sad that there are fewer and fewer old people.

I’m 51 now. With any luck, I’m going to be 71 someday, maybe even 81 or 91. I’m going to look around and there won’t be any old people left. There’ll just be (a) young people and (b) people my age.

Some of my best friends are people my age, but let me tell you I don’t find them especially insightful. When they talk about what life was like when they were growing up, it’s going to sound awfully familiar to me. I’ll miss the older generation.

But about movie etiquette: Regardless of your age, please stop talking when the feature starts. If you need to converse, learn how to use sign language, like Helen Keller.

And if someone sees me talking in a movie theater in 2033, please feel free to tell me to button it or zip it or Velcro it or whatever the magical clothing fastener of the future is.

From old to young

I am delighted to say that we are chugging along nicely in this year’s campaign to raise $400,000 for the uncompensated care fund at Children’s National. After three weeks, readers have donated $105,070.34 to the pediatric hospital. That’s a terrific start. Please help us keep the momentum building.

To make a tax-deductible gift, visit childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or send a check (payable to “Children’s National”) to Washington Post Giving Campaign, c/o Children’s Hospital Foundation, 801 Roeder Rd., Suite 650, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Our deadline is Jan. 10.

Bill and Joanne Conway, through their Bedford Falls Foundation, have generously offered to match all gifts to The Washington Post Campaign for Children’s National. All donations, up to a total of $150,000, made by Dec. 31 will be matched dollar for dollar.

Your gift today can make a difference in the life of a child.

john.kelly@washpost.com

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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