"Winter companions,

The old men

Lost in their overcoats,

Waiting for the sunset . . .

How terribly strange to be 70 . . ." -From "Old Friends" by Paul Simon, Charing Cross Music, 1968

With all the age-bashing prevalent these days, as in references to "greedy geezers" spending the Social Security trust fund dry, many people tend to forget that old people really never did have much of a popular image.

W. Andrew Achenbaum, an American history professor who teaches the history of aging at the University of Michigan's Institute of Gerontology, brings this point home to each new class. For the first week, he says, "we read the Book of Job together," possibly the oldest literary metaphor for the price of old age -- from boils to bankruptcy.

Then they read John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," as well as Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" and "King Lear."

Today's ambiguous behavior toward the elderly isn't so much a reflection of the fact that their numbers are rising rapidly, says Achenbaum, as of the ever-present perception of old age as being "somewhere between a Hallmark greeting card and your worst nightmare."

In other words, old age is both idealized and tempered with the guilt of having neglect- ed -- or abandoned -- a parent or grandparent. That is reflected in the latest version of the old complaint: "My son, (sigh), he doesn't write, he doesn't call, he doesn't fax . . ."

Part of the reason for the lack of esteem in which old people are held is psychological, according to Achenbaum. There is the idea, extant "even in ancient times to make them be the projection of your worst fears -- of dependency, of decline, of debility, of death."

Some of what Achenbaum has been writing and teaching for the past 15 years has been recently reaffirmed in a study of, of all things, American sheet music.

Elias S. Cohen, vice president of Community Services Institute Inc., a human services consulting firm near Philadelphia, along with program analyst Anna Kruschwitz, has surveyed sheet music -- cover art and lyrics -- from the present back to the 1830s. Their findings were published recently in The Gerontologist, the journal of the American Gerontology Association.

Nobody back in the mid-19th century, Cohen notes, at least in the music business, was talking about "greedy geezers," but there was plenty of reference to hopelessness and loneliness.

An example: ". . . For I'm old and I'm helpless and feeble/The days of my youth have gone by/Then over the hill to the poorhouse/I wander alone there to die," from poet George Catlin's early 19th-century poem set to music in 1874.

Some of the other "universals" Cohen found in 300 pieces of American sheet music about old age were these:

"Physical changes." Sometimes these were presented positively, but usually they were negative. Silver hairs among the gold, for example, or "The Prune Song," a 1928 ditty about plastic surgery for wrinkles.

"Sex and romance." Always negative. "It may be a little less so today," says Cohen, "but we still find the idea of sex in old people funny."

"Growing old together." Positively portrayed and almost always from the husband's viewpoint.

"Filial responsibility." The guilt trip transcends time.

"Youth and old age." Glorification of the former in reminiscences of the latter. (As in, "When You and I Were Young, Maggie . . .")

"Fear of old age." Recurrent themes about fear of abandonment, poverty, loneliness and debility.

Clearly, says Cohen, a management consultant for social services, including those for the elderly, constructing an entire history of old age or anything else just from sheet music is questionable. "If I were to come to any conclusion from this, it would be that contrary to some of the writing, there is a real question as to whether there ever was a time in which we venerated the elderly simply because they were elderly," he says.

Achenbaum, Cohen and others have attempted to reconstruct attitudes about aging from various sources. One study looked at 2,000 sermons of 20 Presbyterian ministers. But, Achenbaum has written, there is too much "marked ambiguity, ambivalence and conflict about feelings about growing old and being old" to come to any definite conclusions from any single source. "We're all fishing around," says Cohen, "and I don't think there is any single touchstone."

Old women come in for some special bashing in popular music. They are portrayed as particularly pathetic, wrinkled and withered, usually abandoned. For example:

"Stick to your mother, Mary

Don't leave your old home now

She's old and gray and she wants you to stay

So don't take a year of her life away.

Those wedding bells can wait, dear . . ." -- Lyrics by Thomas Allen, Daly Music Publishing, 1913

Cohen cites the cover to the song "The Old Maid's Prayer" as an example. Also, he adds, women portrayed as kissing their 18-year-old sons goodbye on music covers couldn't be much beyond their forties, given the demographics of the 19th century, "but they all have white hair and really appear to be quite old."

Cohen also points out, however, that when looking at popular music covers and lyrics, the age of the artist or poet as well as the lyricist must be taken into account.

Paul Simon, for example, was still in his twenties when he wrote "Old Friends," in which he perceives 70 as an incomprehen- sible age. "From that perspective," says Cohen, "being 70 is the ultimate horror."

Then, he notes, there is a current country-western song called "Older Women," which says "they make beautiful lovers/older women, they understand/ older women . . . they really know how to please a man."

However, says Cohen, "if you wait long enough in the song, you find out those older women are those who are over 25."