The television-sitcom parents take it calmly when their college-student daughter brings her fiance home and announces that he will sleep in her room, but they are shocked when a widowed grandmother arrives for a later visit with her elderly male companion and makes a similar announcment.
That program hasn't been broadcast or even written, but it's a suggestion of the National Council on the Aging as part of a campaign to persuade television toward more realistic and less stereotyped portrayals of elderly people.
"The old people are really the last to speak up," said Lydia Braggar, who heads the Media Watch task force of the Gray Panthers. "Because we're supposed to be not quite with it, we're not supposed to protest."
When readers of Retirement Living magazine were asked to choose which of 12 words most accurately describes the way Americans over 60 are portrayed on television, their top three choices were "ridiculous," "decrepit" and "childish."
The grandfather character on "Soap" spend at lot of time crawling on the floor in early episodes, Heleyne Landres of the council's Media Resource Center recalls. "I speak for all the elderly people who are not crawling on their floors," she said. She is happy to report that, after complaints to "Soap's" creators, "grandfather is now walking erect."
The men and women trying to raise television's consciousness about the elderly have economic clout as well as fairness on their side. One in 10 Americans is over 65, but they spend one of every five dollars that buy food for consumption in the home. Although the elderly have reduced incomes, their disposable income is likely to increase paid off and their children are grown.
According to the Media Resource Center, the most prosperous 10-year age bracket in terms of per capita income are Americans 44 through 64 years old. Those over 65 are only 5 per cent below the national norm.
"The dirty old man" and "the little old lady" are two of the stereotypes the center attacks. Creaky voices, the use of outdated slang and peculiar dress are not the attributes of many real-life old people, although they have been common on television. Not all older women tint their hair blue, not all are hard of hearing or absentminded.
The Media Resouce Center suggests in a lively booklet called "Older People Are People Too" that television ought to show a heist planned and carried out by old people, and Landres is waiting for the day that a 65-year-old TV character kisses a woman with passion because he finds her sexually attractive.
What happens when she suggests that scene? "They tell me, yes, it would be a good idea," she said. On television, however, there is little sex after 60 or, indeed, after youth. Landres fears she has detected a troubling new trend: the disappearance of the middle-aged woman on television. The actresses age, she said, but the characters they are playing don't. A disease called lack-of-casting is killing off the middle-aged famales, Landres said.
In general, however, Braggar and Landres think television is responsive to their protests.
"It isn't a deliberate thing being done to hurt old people usually," Braggar, who has been watching media treatment of elderly people of all ages are eating yogurt of all flavors. Ththe Federal Communications Commission because of the cooperation we get from the networks." Support is also coming from other quarters. Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) is holding a series of hearings on the subject, and the American Jewish Committee, National Council of Churches of Christ, U.S. Catholic Conference and Columbi University Journalism School recently sponsored a conference to discuss the problem.
Commercials often give more offense than entertainment programs. Bragger cited a commercial in which people of all ages are eating uogurt of all flavors. The elderly couple's flavor was prune. A New York radio station recently stopped running a commercial after the Gray Panthers complained. It had said that health food used to be bought by little old ladies in tennis shoes but now was a product for "the intelligent shopper."
America has long worshipped youth and reserved the "good times," soft lights and soft whiskeys of its advertisement for them. The negative value placed on wrinkles, gray hair and the grave television commercial sin of irregularity has also become a part of the pattern in which old people are not respected but more likely discarded - in Landres's image - like paper cups.
The point of removing stereotypes of elderly people from television is not only to stop giving offense to America's old, but also to stop giving misinformation to young viewers. It is a step toward reversing the negative view society takes of the elderly.
The message is that old does not automatically equal useless, dependent, senile nd not rich.