Bob Maxwell, president of the American Association of Retired Persons, told me that senior citizens are particularly effective as volunteers in schools because the children respect them, like them and blossom under the individualized attention they provide.

So-called "elderly" individuals have a wealth of experience and education to share, he said. Teachers would do very well to tap that resource.My conversation with Maxwell came at a time when I have been mulling over the role senior citizens play - and how we adult-age "youngsters" treat them.

My father has been in intensive care for three weeks. He is 77, bright, articulate and funny. Most of the doctors and nurses treat him that way.

But there are exceptions.

One young doctor was called in for a consultation, and I listened with horror as he told my father, who was semi-conscious, not to worry if his mind doesn't work well.

"You're an old guy," he said. "You are not as smart as you used to be. But that's no big deal. You're not as smart as your daughter," he gestured toward me, "because you're old."

I wish I were as smart as my father, who is a brilliant man.

When I tried to explain that until he went into the hospital, at least, my father had all of his mental faculties intact and humming along beautifully, the doctor gave me an "Oh, sure" look.

It was an assumption - and an injustice - that left me shaken and angry.

Admittedly, a hospital is not a good place to showcase your brain power, particularly if you're critically ill. I can understand how some people might make assumptions. But I wondered if it went further than that, so I started checking the issue out in other places.

In grocery stores, I saw clerks speak slowly - and sometimes condescendingly - to elderly customers.

I noticed that "old" people are sometime referred to patronizingly as "cute" or "spunky" by people who would never speak that way of a 54-year-old. In fact, some people stop just short of pinching their cheeks.

We encourage our senior citizens to get out of the work-place and make room for younger talent. Some senior citizens are ready to retire. Others have many more years of productive work in them, years they'd love to give.

That will change in the future, because experts say there won't be enough young people to satisfy the workplace demands. Older Americans will have to do it.

Because the body tends to deteriorate at varying rates as people age, we make assumptions. While those of us who are adults, but consider ourselves young, guard our own individuality and capability carefully, we lump senior citizens together. We'd be furious if someone suggested everyone between 21 and 64 is the same. But we do that to people who are over 65.

We say they've had a "good life," instead of caring that they've been good people. The "have had" sounds like it's over, though they're still living and loving. We treat them like children because the ravages of time make some of them more dependent - they can't drive anymore, for instance.

There's some poetic justice coming up. We're none of us getting younger. Someday, that doctor and I may look at each other across our own 77 years of living and wonder why "the kids" insist on talking down to us, around us, over us or through us.

(I may take the opportunity then to kick him in the shins. It will be excused. After all, I'll be old.)

By then, we'll know the truth: Some people lose mental capabilities as they age. Others, like centenarian Harry Goule, who recently turned 104, are sharp as can be, although his hearing and sight have deteriorated a little. As a matter of fact, a year ago he was still riding a three-wheeled bike.

It's no different than when we're younger. I know delightful young people who are not particularly intelligent and I know old people who are brilliant.

It happens individually. No clock determines it - not even a long-running one.

As Oscar Wilde said: "The tragedy of old age isn't that you're old. The tragedy is that you're still young."

I'm going to try to remember what I've learned about aging. Other cultures show respect and admiration for the elderly. It makes sense.

And it could be like a deposit on the future. Someday our children and grandchildren will treat us the way we've treated our elders. We should show them how we'd like it done.