THE GEEZER BRIGADE: FEISTY SENIORS RALLY ONLINE

by John Suler, Ph.D.

Cyberspace is the information center and social playground of the relatively young, like middle-aged folks and especially the ever booming numbers of youngsters who are growing up with the word "internet" as commonplace in their thoughts as "TV" and "library".... Not exactly. Seniors are exploring cyberspace also, setting up their own territories and groups, such as Third Age, Senior.com, Senior Search, and the AOL Senior chat rooms. Unique among these online worlds is The Geezer Brigade (thegeezerbrigade.com) -- a group that relishes the philosophy of being feisty codgers and codgerettes, as well as any and all humor that allows them to defy, embrace, and transcend the experience of being old. They are an excellent example of how the internet offers the opportunity for individuals with special interests, issues, or backgrounds to come together in a virtual group.

In the "real" world, such groups may have been impossible to create due to geographical distance or simply the inability of the people to find each other. But online, they gather to share their philosophy of life and humor in a daily newsletter, chat meetings, and their own web site.

The Geezer Brigade (TGB) was created and continues to be run by The Geezer-in-Chief John Kernell, 65, of South Carolina (initially, he told me NORTH Carolina, but later jokingly corrected himself and chalked up his absented-minded error as "a senior moment"). Retired in 1991 from his position as vice president for an international PR firm, Kernell did anything but "retire" from an energetic lifestyle. He moved to Mexico, finished a novel, became fluent in Spanish, formally studied piano at a music conservatory, played piano in a good restaurant, designed an alternative therapy program to overcome his health problems, took his son to Europe on stock market profits, and eventually moved to Charleston for the weather and cultural opportunities. He also a has degree in English, Speech and Drama from Cornell and received an MA in counseling psychology when he was 44.

It was during his drive to Charleston that he came up with the idea for a seniors club called The Geezer Brigade. At first he wasn't sure how he was going to make it work, but when he fired up his PowerMac and connected to AOL, a pop-up ad announced "Put your business on the Internet." And so he did. "I always knew I would some day seek to empower other Seniors while in retirement. Empowerment through humor is one way.... My forebears were Irish vaudeville comedians." As its founding member, he brought to TGB the energetic, adventurous, and broad-minded attitude that is so evident in his life.

TGB itself consists of approximately 200 members from all over North America, equally split between men and women. The average age for men is 73 and for women, 70. The entry level age is 55, with the oldest man at 96 and the oldest woman, 88. Most members are retired mid-level, white collar workers, with a college degree but no advanced education. "But the group is very heterogeneous," Kernell explained, "LOTS of exceptions. Ex-Army. Language teacher. Dentists. Doctors." No doubt, the adventurous, open-minded philosophy of TGB draws such a diverse collection of people together, and that diversity in turns reinforces the philosophy. When I asked Kernell what three words best captured the essence of The Brigade, he replied:

 

Humor
Recognition
Belonging

A membership satisfaction survey revealed that the humor was far and away the number one appeal of TGB. It is the kind of wry, self-deprecating humor that Phyllis Diller expresses about her age. Their daily e-mail newsletter, for example, may be peppered with one-liners like "Some minds are like concrete: thoroughly mixed up and permanently set" or "It's frustrating when you know all the answers, but nobody bothers to ask you the questions any more." At the same time, the humor is filled with feistiness and spunk. It demonstrates the adventuresome, curious, and self-aware attitude of TGB. Kernell said:

"I believe that humor is empowering to Seniors. It is also salutary. If you go watch Patch Adams, the new Robin Williams movie, the whole premise of the movie is that humor is a powerful tool in the hands of a physician.... I think because TGB is run by a 65-year-old semi-retired geezer that the humor we share in the daily e-mails, monthly newsletter, and weekly chats has a special feel to it that is more readily understood and appreciated by other Seniors, almost as if we were an ethnic minority that shared a special language or dialect. We APPRECIATE each other in special ways that are not so present in very heterogeneous online groups."

The Geezer philosophy of continuing to be feisty and adventurous perfectly suits the group for using the internet as a vehicle for meeting, since the internet is the "new frontier." There is a pioneering spirit among TGB. Rather than forging streams and crossing mountains, TGB people are buying modems and setting out into cyberspace. Although there are other online groups for seniors, Kernell sees the TGB as different, unique. He finds the other groups to be rather bland, predictable, and tending to follow the "make nice" and "go along to get along" philosophy. TGB has a more pugnacious mission, as evident in the term "Brigade":

"I think we ARE a minority among Seniors and a good and useful one. There is a tendency to 'go along' as we age, both at work and at home. Some people end up as 'Seniors' having somehow lost entirely their capacity for genuineness, having compromised away their connection to their 'real selves' in an effort to be accepted. They have fixed themselves to gain approval and, in the process, LOST their Selves. Their humor is predictable, strained and not terribly funny. Their laughter is automatic and is hard for Geezers to be around. We are not Seniors, Golden Agers, Third Agers, etc. We are GEEZERS. This implies feistiness, spunk, a sparkle in the eyes, aliveness, even eccentricity. We make trouble, in a good way, by refusing to be categorized, pigeonholed or predictable. We're still struggling to grow and find ourselves. Our motto is 'Do not go gentle into that good night!' Obviously, I'm communicating a very clear 'us' and 'them' situation, perhaps because I'm so terrified of becoming like how I perceive them to be."

A fascinating, powerful outcome of the internet is the opportunity it offers for anyone with a computer and modem to have a voice, to be recognized. Anyone can publish a web page that says anything you want it to say. Anyone can express their opinion in a public arena without your "real world" status or appearance being a significant factor in whether people listen.

This kind of recognition is part of the appeal of TGB. Geezers have their say. They are recognized as Geezers, as unique people ("I'm over 55! I'm 96!"). On a much more basic level, they are recognized as people. Kernell noted how a very effective advertisement in the 1930s was a small national magazine ad in the 30s that said: "$1.00: Get Mail." Lonely older folks who wanted something in their mailboxes every day sent in their dollar -- a lot of money in those days -- and the entrepreneur who thought up the ad put their names on the mailing lists of commercial enterprises and those making free offers.

The daily e-mails of TGB address a similar need, except the mail is personalized to the psychological and emotional mindset of the members, and it integrates feedback from the members. The daily e-mails also use a "blind carbon" so each recipient sees only his/her own address as the destination. Kernell anticipates what the recipients might think, "This e-mail is specifically addressed to me! I am still important enough to get mail every day." Kernell puts his effort into making the e-mails as funny, offbeat and senior-friendly as possible. "A number of members said how much they appreciated being able to get up, go to their computer and get a laugh to start the day."

Above and beyond simply being recognized, TGB gives its members the opportunity to be involved, to BELONG. This is valuable to retired seniors whose work and social circles may have become narrowed -- and especially valuable to "Geezers" who, in their in-person life, may have difficulty finding like-minded Geezers. "I like the total concept of old codgers such as myself having a cyber club by which we can share and exchange," one member stated in the satisfaction survey. "FRIENDS," said another, "are without doubt the most interesting and important result of my Brigade membership, both sexes, altho' at my age: especially women friends." Thanks to the internet, the circle of friends are available 24 hours a day, and keeps expanding in interesting and challenging ways.

07/29/99

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.

 

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