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REFLECTIONS: The WPA

Five Years of Blogging about Age: Language

blogging bug image Some people have annual “blogiversaries” celebrating the date of the birth of their blogs. I don’t have one of those. It took me, while I was still working full time and commuting more than four hours a day, six or seven months to get this blog up and running, according to old notes.

Time Goes By began in fits and starts of posting and just the banner took four iterations before I came up with a satisfactory idea.

For seven or eight years before that, I had been spending much of my free time researching aging. So it feels like I’ve been writing about getting old for about a dozen years.

Although I was dinking around with the blog during much of 2003, the steady stream of daily posts began early in 2004, making 2009 a fifth blogiversary, however mushy the actual date is. So without a precise day to celebrate, this year is a good time to take some stock about what I’ve learned (and not); how my thoughts, ideas and beliefs about getting old have changed (and not); and how the landscape of aging has changed (and not), particularly with the advent of baby boomers entering late life, which I had not anticipated in the beginning.

So, from time to time during 2009, I will ruminate on these things.

I give language a great deal of seriousness. Specificity is important, finding just the right word to express what I’m thinking, and the difficulty in doing that sometimes, brings ideas into sharper, clearer focus. It is always worth the effort.

One of my first notes about Time Goes By was that there would be no pussyfooting with synonyms and euphemisms for the word “old.” Certainly not “golden-ager” or “third-ager” or “silver” this and that. In addition to being a form a disinformation, those phrases are just icky.

But in time I realized I had pulled my own punches. Look at the subtitle, in the banner, of this blog: “what it’s really like to get oldER. I remember the moment I chose it.

The first subtitle I settled on was “A journal of aging.” I knew it was boring and searched for something better while my colleague and brilliant designer, Freddie LaSenna, was bringing my banner idea to life. When the solution hit me one day, I went to Freddie’s desk to give him the new copy to insert: “What it’s really like to get old.”

And, by god, as I stood there with Freddie, I said, “Hold it, change that to 'older.'”

The difference in just two letters is big. As much as I had come to dislike all the cutesy references to old people through my years of research, I could not yet state the topic of Time Goes By so baldly and that –er at the end of the word softened the blow.

We grow, we learn and the mistake that has been irritating me for too long now has been rectified in the new banner that will accompany the redesign of this blog when it is launched later this year.

Long-time readers of TGB know that I regularly get on my high horse about the language of aging and (as this post reinforces) it will not stop any time soon. There has been a small renaissance in use of the word “elder" and I’m pleased with my part in it. Still too often, however, I cringe at, for example, the media’s ubiquitous use of “elderly” to describe anyone in any circumstance who is older than about 65.

Elderly implies frailty and senility, and all three adjectives automatically dismiss the person so described as no longer consequential. I promise you that no matter how fit, healthy and articulate you are, if your name turns up in a newspaper as, say, in a robbery, the story will read:

“The mugger got away with 70-year-old Jane Doe’s handbag, but the elderly woman was unharmed.”

Now what picture of Jane Doe comes to mind as you read that sentence? How is that picture different if you read the sentence without “elderly?” And importantly, if Jane were elderly, senile or frail, the crime becomes more heinous and deserves further explication.

Some people become frail or senile as they get old, but it cannot and should not be assumed of every old person. Additionally, the adjective “elderly” in that report is superfluous; the woman’s age is enough. Yet I see similar sentences several times every week as "elderly" is mindlessly used as a synonym for "old."

By the way, apparently celebrities are exempt from the elderly tag. No one refers to Clint Eastwood, Doris Roberts, Ed Asner and old business titans such as George Soros and Warren Buffet - all born in 1930 - with that word.

Language is powerful. If someone tells a kid again and again that he is stupid, he and those around him who hear it will come to believe that he is, whether or not it is true. It can affect how his teachers, classmates and family treat him, keep him from trying hard and diminish the possibilities of his future. Equally so, if an entire culture uses belittling language in regard to elders, both elders and the culture will believe old people are less important than those of other ages.

I thought I understood that when I began Time Goes By, but it was much more vague compared to now. New variations turn up constantly and repetitively, and five years later I am still learning the full force of negative consequences on public policy, healthcare, employment, even fashion and other less crucial aspects of elders' lives.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Carol Gardner asks and answers the question, A New Career After 65? In Your Dreams.]

Comments

Ronni - Great post and this post should be read by all ages not just older readers. But you are correct the way that a fact or something is written, colors our perceptions greatly.

My generation was taught that (like your say) an elderly person was someone that was old and frail. Age may make you old and frail, but there are many older people in all societies that are in much better shape and more vital than their younger counterparts.

Well gotta get ready for work, great post - as always you made me think -- which is a good thing.

Harold

Thought provoking post, as always. As adamant as you are about the term elder as defining who we are, I am on the other side of this rainbow....not sure we have to be defined by a number or category.

I bristle at our ageist society and your example of well known people being exempt from the aging category demonstrates how clueless our society is as to who we are as individuals or a group. Those people you named, i.e. Clint Eastwood, et all, do not demonstrate to the public what a significant portion of our population is. Instead, because of our inability as a society to accept that age is a number, people are people, the sum total of their accomplishments, personalities, and more, these succesful, active, bright, engaging, people are viewed as exceptions to the perceived rule that as you age, you become useless.

I know I am rambling but its your fault Ronni, you got me going this morning.

I heard Bill Thomas speak about a year ago. He is, of course, the geriatrician contributor to this blog as well as a professor at University of Maryland. What he said struck me like a bolt of lightening that has impacted me to this day.

He said: as a society, we adulticize our children (by dressing them older, getting them things, etc) and infantize our elders (thinking of them as children, frail, unable to function).

I am not sure what can or will be done to change biased perceptions of a growing number of human beings. I think people are threatened by fears of growing old. Of course, the more people that join us (and they are coming), the more they will learn that life is what you make of it....regardless of a number.

Funny you should mentioned the length of time you have been on the air with Time Goes By. Just this past Tuesday I was trying to recall how long I had been a “TGB member” and determined it was in or around early 2006 or so. Right about the time you were moving to Maine. I remember the first post I ever commented on was “The Corner Bordello” post which remains a favorite!

As to language, my tenure here has propagated a much different take on the subject. I almost always use the term ‘elder’ now except in the case of some of my writing. I tend to still use the term ‘senior’ from time to time because of its universal use and recognition. I suppose that is a bit of a cop-out from your viewpoint….but I’m getting there.

But as to our plight as elders, we as a group remain stereotyped and I’m sure that will not end anytime soon. I often go to a store such as Best Buy or Office Depot and it seems I am completely transparent to sales clerks who are almost always very young. There are times of avoidance when I will stare at them thinking, “You little twerp! You have no idea how smart I am and how stupid you are.” But the irony of that is that in their process of avoiding eye contact with me….they are probably wondering, “Who let him out of the nursing home to roam the streets and make my life miserable.”

In some respects it seems a vicious circle because I am sure I do my own share of stereotyping, especially when I am ill-treated…..or more importantly, not treated at all.

"Elderly" is a term used in the benefit world, usually for programs for those over the age of 60 or 65. It refers to a specific age group, in general terms, such as the word "disabled" also refers to people with certain characteristics, and apparently has some role in law governing these programs (Medicaid, Food Stamps, etc.)

But it doesn't need to be applied to an individual in other circumstances, I think.

A place to look is the Older Americans Act, which I think sets some of the criteria for "elderly"

Re your tagline, I would argue for keeping "older." "Old" suggests an end point to me. Even though I am now Old, presumably I am not as old as I'm going to get; I'm going "to get older."

I agree that elders are sterotyped. I myself stereotype certain elder behavior, which I have promised myself I will not emulate as I continue to age. (I hope!) So, this is a learning process for me as well as for others.

I think when youngers don't make eye contact, or don't seem to want to wait on you, it may simply be they have had little contact with a older. One of the characteristics of aging folks is our ongoing segregation from much of the rest of society. Many times youngers don't know what to make of us, I think.

As an easy term of referral, I think "seniors" is acceptable. I don't mind being a senior at all.

It’s not easy being older, especially if you continue to enjoy doing a few things you did when you were younger. This is especially true in regard to my exercise classes at the Y. I know I’ve talked about this again and again, but please bear with me as I continue to rant. I missed two mid-week 6AM classes due to ice and snow and one Saturday morning class because I was enjoying the day with a friend in NY. I could not believe the questions thrown at me when I showed up this past week. Are you okay? Nothing’s wrong is it? We missed you and were beginning to worry. I know the sinking feeling of seeming transparent, but sometimes it can be a plus!

Like Always Question, I vote for "Older" vs "Old" in your blog title. Aging is a process, not a destination. (Death is the destination; but, I would hate for you to name your blog "What It's Like Moving toward Death.")

Additionally, "elderly" is an age grouping, to me--not a physical condition. I've been fighting this battle within the humanitarian organization in which I volunteer. I tell them that we don't need to have a category "elderly" when we list disabilities!

There really isn't a good word for being old except old. Adjectives like elderly are misused because it does mean frail not just number of years. The problem with elder (I like it myself) is that it implies wisdom. Elders were often the spiritual council in a tribe. Not all elders are wise. Those who are our elders just means those older than us which might not be old.

Language is a problem in a lot of areas in describing age. Like youth. Where does that end? I call my kids young who are 42 and almost 40. Well they seem young to me.

I agree with Always Question about the use of the word "older". I think the mistake that we sometimes make when talking about old age is to lump all of old age together. There is a big difference between 65 and 85. In a week I will be 77. When I was 73 a friend and I (she was 71) went backpacking in New Zealand. We hiked over rough terrain and camped out on the beach. I am not sure that today I would be up to that, and not sure that I would want to do it again. A 25 pound weight on your back can kinda spoil a hike. The next time I go to NZ, with my husband who is my age, we will hike a somewhat tamer trail, stay in comfortable inns and let a water taxi move out stuff from place to place. So things change as you get older, and there's no way to pretend it isn't so. I think it is good to have a variety of words to use when talking about the last part of life. Personally, I like the term "elder". I live next to an Indian Reservation, and I often see the bus they have with "Lummi Elders" in large letters on the side. I am reminded that Native Americans honor their elders as repositories of wisdom and valuable experience. How different from the usual mixture of pity and derision most of us get from youth these days.

I just looked up 'elderly' (yet again). This time I looked it up in FIVE different dictionaries:

"eld•er•ly adj.
1. Being past middle age and approaching old age; rather old..
2. Of, relating to, or characteristic of older persons or life in later years.
n. pl. Older people considered as a group.
elderly adj : advanced in years; (1913)
Elderly a. Somewhat old; advanced beyond middle age; bordering on old
age; as, elderly people."

.... and so on. So until somebody shows me an actual dictionary entry that gives 'frail' as one of that word's meanings, I shall continue to feel irritated every time I hear someone say that 'elderly' means 'frail.'
I seem to be the only one around here who is fighting to hang on to the correct meaning of this word. Why? After all, if the word has somehow managed to collect some undesirable associations through popular usage - which seems to be the case - why can't we challenge that, just as we challenge all the other false assumptions about aging? I just don't get it!!

Reading the post today was scary! I felt as though you were reading my mind!!!!!!

I have been so cognizant of the term "elderly" lately and found myself getting quite huffy about it. (Well, as huffy as a frail, decrepit 60 yr. old woman can get!)

"How dare they call a 60+ yr. old "elderly"! I ranted to myself and anyone else who would listen.

Why couldn't they call us "wise, profound, skilled, experienced or perspicacious(impressive, eh?)!?!

Just wait until they get elderly....er, our age!

xoxo

Gail Collins says today that old is in:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/12/opinion/12collins.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

I suspect she hasn't actually tried being an elder in the workplace...

I think we have to adopt universal health care as a way to move older people out of the work force, at least those who could afford to retire but don't have health care and aren't old enough for medicare. I know many people in that situation. The 20 somethings are really getting restless and bored. They're ready to do bigger things, but there's no room for them yet. And Arnie keeps cutting our university budgets in California, the damned fool.

We need a lot more cross generational discussion, I think. Thanks for this forum, Ronnie. And I hope you'll all write Gail and let her know what it's really like, etc...

We have rites of passage, graduations, ceremonies or whatever you care to call them, for many phases or our lives to help us let go of what was, and say hello to what comes next. What we need is a rite of passage for old-age, to be thankful we've at last reached the time in our lives when we can slow down to reflect and unlearn some of the bad habits from the past. (I remember thinking of anyone older and slower than me as a geezer.) We can't change how others see us, or think of us, but we can change how we see and think of ourselves. As for those young things that now think they'll never be us as we probably thought not so long ago? Everyone lucky enough to live so long will have their chance. Let's work for the changes we want by beginning with ourselves.

Marian Van Eyk McCain's and Alice's words certainly resonate with me!

I agree with leaving the tag line as "older." I've only been a regular reader of TGB for about six months, and I remember that the tag line was appealing to me because it suggested a process, specifically a process I am going through. Right or wrong, good or bad, I'm not sure I would have had as positive a reaction to reading about being old.

That said, I definitely found a place here. The posts and comments are smart, timely, thoughtful, funny, and sensitive. Many thanks to all of you.

"What's in a name? A rose by any other name still smells as sweet." Sorry Shakespeare, but I couldn't resist.

I think the real problem is stereotyping. If 'frail' brings up the image of a doddering old person haltingly using a cane to navigate from place to place, then they are thinking of me. And yet, I am not frail in my eyes. So it's all in the implications of the name, isn't it?

I vote for adding one word to elder; I think we of a certain age should start using the words "wise elders" when referring to the aged. Even a person suffering from dementia has, at one time, gained wisdom that the young cannot possess.

I'm just ruminating also.

Enjoyed this post. I believe I dreaded adding each decade to my life because I felt I was going to have a life like my grandmother had. Now, I hope to be like her in her ways, but, not sit on the couch and never go anywhere. But, I am not sitting on the couch, I still work in a Neonatal ICU. I think "we" are going to remain ourselves, as we add years to our life. But we are not going to become aged or frail,we are going to stay alive and live just like every other person on our earth.

Sometimes the dictionary definitions of words lose relevance as common usage takes over. "Elderly" may refer to a certain age in life, but the common usage of the term has added "frail" to its definition, whether or not we like it.

Rain's comment that the term "elder" can be problematic because it means "wise older person" in tribal parlance is interesting. I also associate the word with wisdom and that prevents me from using it comfortably as a general description of a certain age group, even though that would be grammatically correct. I wonder how many others feel that way.

I'm still partial to "senior" as a general term. I don't think it's been co-opted by common usage to have negative (or positive) characteristics automatically attributed to it.

Good post! Words are power.

'Elderly' might have collected up an unwarranted association with 'frail' in the US, though not so much, I think, here in the UK (here, we use the phrase 'frail elderly' if that's what we mean). But that doesn't mean 'elderly' can't be reclaimed before it slides any further. And while we are at it, let's stop seeing 'frail' as a pejorative term too. Sure, I am happy that I still have strength and stamina and a good degree of fitness, but I probably won't always. And some of my friends don't, especially the one who inherited osteoporosis. If we live long enough, most of us are likely to get more frail, more fragile, easier to fracture, slower to heal... and eventually, and with absolute certainty, dead. That's the nature of life on Earth. The deep, dark root of ageism - the bit that is so hard to get one's knife under - is our human reluctance to accept and embrace mortality. All the rest - the ageist language and attitudes, the youth-fixated culture, the ill-treatment of old people, the cosmetic surgery scam... and so on, grows from that.

Interesting post. My mother is 82, yet I can't think of her as elderly. In my mind I associate that term with frail, creaky old fusspots who can no longer take care of themselves. My mother still drives, lives alone, and manages most things for herself, but looking at her dispassionately I'd have to say she is a frail, creaky old fusspot whose robust health and continuing mental acuity lets her continue taking care of herself. If she's not elderly now, when will she be? Maybe she's elderly to strangers, but to me she is ageless and I can't apply a label to her.

Ellen's comment "In my mind I associate that term with frail, creaky ..." etc. exactly proves my point. What I am saying is that if we can create associations we can also de-couple them! Most of ageism is about faulty associations that need changing.
I rest my case.

Suppose we took elderly away from meaning someone in the latter stages of old age, what would we be left to use? Several mentioned the changing old age process and elderly has meant those who are not able to care for themselves to the same degree they had perhaps only 5 years earlier. So if we don't reserve that word for our last stages of old age, are we left with a word we can use? There definitely is a difference as we age for our abilities and our need for outside assistance.

"elderly" at 70? thanks for the laugh....i absolutely can't even imagine anyone calling someone my age (72) elderly, but maybe they do. i actually feel younger than ever. really. it's a curious phenomenon..Shakespeare had it pegged in As You Like It, 2. 7. 139-167...the "seven ages of man" (crikey...always with the man and not the woman)....

I, too, share your emphasis on the significance of the words and language used to shape attitudes of our own and others.

When you first had discussions of selection of terms including elder vs older, I selected older as my first choice and I still prefer that term. I do understand the meaning intent for using the term elder and have and will continue to support you in that regard despite my personal preference.

I have great disdain for the use of "senior" and will be extremely happy if that term is permanently jettisoned. I was delighted last fall to learn that a committee on aging in our community has the intent to permanently deep six "senior," but hadn't been able to come up with an acceptable substitute word at that time. I'll have to check to see if they've made progress. I referred them to your blog and the discussion that had occurred here. I expect they can't afford to change it now, because of the economy, since the "Senior" Centers all have that word on the buildings exteriors.

As for elderly, I work in retirement communities. I suggest "elderly" might well be a term to describe those whose medical condition requires them to live in the skilled nursing level (although a few of them, are active enough to not be considered "elderly,) but most of those in Assisted Living and, certainly, those Independent -- many in their nineties could readily be considered elders, but they are differentiated from the less capable "elderly." Perhaps Marian's dictionary will catch up with a more accurate definition in keeping with the times, even if it is still considered coloquial by some dictionary editors.

I prefer your slogan as it currently is -- "older" -- as a significant differentiation from "old" given the broad age group beginning at age 50, and the younger ones you attract. You may consider me "old" if you like, but I'm "older" and will decide when I'm truly "old." No, I'm not avoiding my aging truth, but if you think you might be doing so, by referring to yourself as "older" rather than "old," then, by all means, you are old. ;-)

Ronni, long life to Time Goes by!

Whenever someone refers to me as "senior," I'm always tempted to call him or her "Junior."

Luckily being 61 hasn't slowed me down much yet. Nature has been tolerant with my body so far. But the SADNESS: it doesn't want to leave. My parents are still alive, but one of these days they'll be gone. My youthful cousin wearing the sexy underwear was taken by cancer,
my dogs have cloudy eyes.
"That's life" I used to say, but I
never understood what that really meant. 61 is an eye-opener. With life comes death. All right. But how do we all COPE with this awareness??
Help please.

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