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Accommodating Elders

Name Game Poll Results

There were a lot of interesting opinions expressed about the Old Age Name Game Poll. “Elder” in particular came under discussion and some feel that it should be reserved for people who have reached their 80th year or more, as it embodies the ideas of wise and learned along with the Biblical decree to respect elders.

Reaching one’s ninth decade does not guarantee wisdom any more than a college degree confers intelligence. Some have it, some don’t. And elder, used in acknowledgement of respect, experience and judgment has long gone missing from the U.S. vocabulary – if, indeed, it ever applied to anyone outside Native American culture. It still carries a tinge of respectfulness, but the word hardly ever comes up in general usage these days.

If I’d thought to do so, I would have applied “elder” to my friend Patrick. He died in his forties, but he was an old soul – understanding and wise beyond his years, and sought out by people of all ages for those qualities. We should all hope to become as he. But that is, again, a definition of elder in the old sense. Today, it floats around the edges of language, I think, waiting for an updated definition.

Each of us will choose to use words and phrases to reference ourselves and others as old that fit us most comfortably. All I would ask is that they be chosen with the respect a given individual deserves, and that knee-jerk pejoratives be left to die.

Language matters. The civil rights movement of the 1960s began to gain momentum when African Americans refused any longer to accept the N word. And so it is with old people. When we resist ageist language, we are demanding the respect that a youth-centric culture too often denies us.

As of this posting, “elder” had received the largest number of poll votes, 33, followed by 29 for “senior” and 28 for “Old/Older.” As to the one person who voted for “biddy” – well, bless your heart, to each her own. Where I come from that’s not meant kindly…


IIRC, I voted for four of the possibilities, but if I had been able to rank them in order of preference, my first choice would have been "geezer". I just like the way it sounds. Maybe it's a guy thing, but I sometimes hear men in my age group refer to themselves or their contemporaries by that term. But I also get the impression that they would be offended if a younger person used it, much as African-Americans sometimes use the N-word among themselves, but will not tolerate it being used by others.

I'm owning up to that 'biddy' vote. I have always heard it used with pleasant connotations - i.e. referring literally to a mother hen, or to an older woman who is busy, involved and caring. Only now that I have checked, have I learnt of the more sinister uses of the word.

But see here for a reference to an 'old coot' and a 'biddy ' in endearing terms -
Why has that old coot figurine been sold out? Who buys this merchandise? I suspect the oldies themselves. My sister-in-law, who just turned 70, proudly displays a similar figurine on her mantlepiece.

So here we are; Deejay is happy to be a geezer while I won't mind a bit being referred to as a biddy. We may lose some of our faculties as we age, but at least we can maintain a sense of humour.

Deejay and Jude:

Sophy Merrick posted this interesting comment on the Name Vote story today:

Your post today (Name Game Poll Results) and its sign-off line re Biddy made me think...

For me, as with many 'isms' and their associated 'hot' words, it is the delivery in tone, context, and body-language, that often tells me how the word is meant to be taken (not withstanding that it is the listener who ultimately discerns their feeling on each case in turn - even when the speaker is talking about themselves).

Most noted for me is the manner in which some minorities are choosing to reclaim their 'school-yard' taunted names and wear them such that they no longer wound but are badges of honour. An interesting phenomenon.

This morning at my aerobics class there was a discussion by the leader of starting a special Cardio Class for Seniors. I immediately said, "Count me out. I don't attend classes that have the word senior". I went on to explain that I love the time I have each day at the gym with women of different ages. I also fear that an instructor will gear down such a class to a slow and non-challenging pace. Right now I am not the greatest in the class I take, but I am the best nearly 70 year old there. I asked her to consider using the term "appropriate for all age groups" with an emphasis on working at one's own ability level.
What do I want to be called?
I don't know. I don't care for any of the labels. Which makes me just another crabby old lady.

Good for you, Maria. We all need to speak up in situations like that - and let the world call us crabby old ladies if they want. In the end, they'll benefit too.

Sometimes y'all get me wondering "What do old folks (or is it elders?) want?" the same way that men confronted with women's lib in the 70s wondered "What do women want?" Open the door for the one woman and you get a huffy, "I can do it myself!" Don't open the door for the next woman and get, "Didn't your mother ever teach you any manners?"

Maria complains when there is a special class for seniors--something that, in my mind, acknowledges that someone has been considerate enough not to think everyone has the same needs or desires as the 20-year-old co-ed next to me. Ronni (rightly so!) points out how the process for flu shots could have been improved had some forethought and planning gone into providing for the needs of the elderly/aged/senior/mature recipients.

So what's the message here? Should I expect people to treat me with the deference afforded by my age, just as long as they don't label me as senior?

Most labels of any kind seem to carry both positive and negative connotations. Seems to be dependent on highly individual perceptions. A label is not who we are -- there are loveable coots and not so loveable coots. I'd certainly agree age alone does not infer a person should be assumed to possess all the positive traits associated with the term "elder."

I like to be referred to as older, mature, senior is just okay (leave out the "citizen".) I aspire to having others look upon me as an elder someday. Some of the other terms would be received very cautiously depending on many factors, some of which were described by others already.

Perhaps we need to determine which of these terms are acceptable to each of us, individually, then make it known what we prefer and will accept from others.

As for the market gurus, a few larger polls with a greater sampling than the one in which we participated might help them see just how many responsive "coots" there are out there for their pitch compared to some of our more popular/acceptable labels. I think you're on the right track, Ronni, but you know these marketing people -- they want numbers -- just like the TV ratings obsessors.

I've never liked labels because they're all too frequently over-used, mis-used, and abused. I think the same can be said for most other naming labels, as well as those applied to various age groups.

Stereotypical descriptions of various generations can be just as misleading when applied to any one individual in that group. Yet, we read about the Gen X group and their supposed characteristics; the Boomers or the "sandwich generation" (people of other generations experienced "sandwiching," too, but it didn't get the press or public concern;) the "Greatest Generation" which is a bit of an overstatement, etc. I see the same pattern if I look backward in history or forward to the oncoming generations.

In Pagan communities, Elder is still used as a term of respect meaning one having authority by virtue of age and experience. There is no set number that refers to age, I've met Elders in their 40s to Elders to their 90s, it's more about the experience and the person. It's definitely about respect for the person.

My parents (in their 80s) jokingly use "gomer," usually to apply to others than themselves and their friends! It comes from a medical-intern novel called The House of God by the pseudonymous Samuel Shem (Stephen Bergman), and stands for "Get Out Of My Emergency Room." It's a lot like "geezer" -- if "geezer" sounds wheezy, then "gomer" sounds toothless and all too much like "goner."

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