There are many answers which differ depending on the angle of approach such as: medical, emotional, mental, cognitive, social, cultural, even consumerist. All of them, however, are hard to know without addressing the nature of the word “old” which in the western world, unless antiques are being discussed, is always pejorative.
Even physicians, social workers, psychologists and others who specialize in studying or caring for elders often use the word negatively by assuming that anyone who is older than about 60 and not behaving in the culturally prescribed manner of a mid-life adult is deficient and therefore no longer requires respect. This sentence, from an organization dedicated to "conscious aging" illustrates the most commonly used cultural definition of old:
“…we have known people younger than 60 who are ‘old’ in their attitudes toward life. They have grown rigid in their preferences and opinions, they are not open to new experiences, they are stuck in their habitual patterns, and they have no appetite for life.”
- - Conscious Aging (undated)
That is the general belief about not only everyone whose appearance places them in the elder category, but also anyone younger who exhibits those characteristics. The problem is that instead of saying those people have lost interest in life or are hidebound or close-minded - which happens at any age - people say they are “old”. Here is the first group of synonyms for “old” from an online thesaurus:
aged, ancient, broken down, debilitated, decrepit, deficient, doddering, elderly, enfeebled, exhausted, experienced, fossil, geriatric, getting on, gray, gray-haired, grizzled, hoary, impaired, inactive, infirm, mature, matured, not young, olden, oldish, patriarchal, seasoned, senile, senior, skilled, superannuated, tired, venerable, versed, veteran, wasted
Not a pretty picture. And further groups of synonyms on that page get worse. No wonder younger people hate old people; no one wants to become doddering, enfeebled, hoary, impaired and infirm nor do they want to be reminded that they too will join the ranks of those descriptions one day.
These definitions of old are so entrenched that even many old people believe them. TGB reader Cindy makes an interesting point in a recent comment:
“…after reading your post, the thought came to mind of how people within one societal group will discriminate against its own. Like when women don’t think women professionals are as knowledgeable/skilled as a man in the same profession. It’s extremely subtle, nearly imperceptible, but there. The old discriminating against the old. The ‘young old’ discriminating against the ‘old old.’”
Language is is a powerful tool. The repeated use of verbal memes over time hardens perception and the near-universal negative regard of old people goes back at least as far as Shakespeare who had a particularly harsh view of old age:
“The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
- - As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7
One way to know how terrible aging is perceived is by the frequency with which people (who believe they are being polite) tell others, “You don’t look that old.” And it is as common as dirt for people, when mentioning the number of their years on earth, to say, “I don’t feel that old.”
Well, that’s just horsepucky. Since not one of us has any experience of a given age before we get there, we can’t know how it feels until the birthday arrives. Therefore, however you feel at any age is what that age feels like.
What people really mean when they say, “I don’t feel that old” is they don’t feel as awful as they (wrongly) believed people feel at that age. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for nearly half a millennium of misunderstanding.
When Time Goes By was being designed, other decisions about how it would operate were being made, among them that the word “old” would be used as the word “young” is used: as a straightforward descriptor. At the same time, cutesy euphemisms such as golden-ager, third-ager, oldster were banned along with the offensive words, geezer, coot and biddy.
At Time Goes By, it was decided elders would be treated as grownups who don’t need their information sugar-coated with denial as it is by many self-appointed gurus on aging, by the billion-dollar industry of anti-aging hucksters and by elders who cannot or will not admit they are getting old.
It is a small voice in the wilderness of widespread denial exacerbated by a media who have a fetish for youth, but on this blog, old is old.
Everything is interesting if you pay attention and being old, if you will ignore the conventional wisdom of its horror, is a fascinating, new experience. But the language of aging, if we do not improve it, will deprive every one of us, as we get older, of our ability to savor the last third of life.
As you read the future installments of When is Someone Old? over the next week or two, remember that the word “old” does not mean frail, decrepit or feeble. Not deficient, doddering or impaired. It just means old: having lived many years.