ELDER POETRY INTERLUDE: Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear

Young at Heart? Not Me

category_bug_ageism.gif Strolling around the interwebs the other day, I landed at a blog (new to me) by a 50-something woman who described herself thusly:

“Nowadays, as I find myself getting older in body, I am trying to stay young in spirit.”

The widespread use of such phrases as “young in spirit” - young at heart being the most common - tick me off because they set up a false comparison between young and old in which the only takeaway possible is negative - that old spirits and hearts are simply unacceptable.

Whenever I discuss this, I get a good deal of pushback from readers who like those phrases or, at most, find them mildly annoying and easy to ignore. This only helps to prove that we have been so brainwashed since childhood by pejorative language about being old that we no longer even recognize it – dangerous because it makes us complicit in our own stereotyping.

In Media Takes: On Aging [pdf], a handbook on ageist language for journalists from the International Longevity Center, it is noted that just when the aging of the huge baby boomer generation is causing closer examination of what getting old is really like,

“...we continue to have embedded in our culture a fear of growing old, manifest by negative stereotypes and language that belittles the very nature of growing old, its complexities and tremendous variability.”

One of my pet examples of the belittlement that is rarely recognized as such is found at an idiom website defining the phrase, young at heart:

”To have youthful outlook, especially in spite of one's age. For example, She loves carnivals and fairs; she's a grandmother but she's young at heart.”

Inclusion of “in spite of one's age” means there is no way to misconstrue the meaning: at its most crude - young hearts good; old hearts bad.

The usual dictionary definitions of young include:

  • Being in an early period of life, development, or growth
  • Newly begun or formed; not advanced
  • Inexperienced or immature
  • Having the appearance, freshness, vigor, or other qualities of youth

At nearly 71, I left behind my early period of life, development and growth many years ago. I'm a long way from newly begun or formed. It pleases me to think I have advanced a good deal on many levels. I am experienced now and mature. After seven decades, I would be embarrassed to have it any other way.

Although I do not believe "freshness and vigor" are necessarily confined to the young, I definitely no longer have the appearance of youth and feel no lament about that. All the years I have accumulated have been well used. They fit nicely and are comfortable.

I am old in spirit and at heart and that is a good thing to be.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Stroppy: Losing Things No 2


Very well put, as usual. I agree strongly that pushing 74, as I am, it would be embarrassing to act as if I've learned nothing in all the years of my life. I can still love a carousel, but I've watched the world change and am horrified that the carousel in the local mall now has seat belts. Just in case someone wants to sue the owner, the children are deprived of imagining they are on a real horse. They are being taught in this way and so many more, that life is dangerous. Of course it is! Life has always been dangerous but our experiences have taught us to live as best we can.

When I point out examples of ageism to my friends many refuse to listen. They are afraid of all isms: feminism, racism, ageism foremost. None will go away by pretending they don't exist. Thanks for the post.

I don't like the term young at heart either. The only reason I can think to say it is a denial of where one is. I am a big believer in living fully exactly where you are, not wishing to be ahead of it or behind. I also don't think denial makes any difference in what reality is. We can say whatever we want, but it won't change what is. If we try to deny where we are, we are missing the experience of it. I think there is an experience of being old and I aim to live it fully.

Ronni, I agree with your comment in general, but see 'in spite of' quote differently.

"He was suddenly cold in spite of the sun." It doesn't mean that the 'cold' is good, or even that the 'sun' is good. It simply means that cold and sun don't often go together.

How much 'youthful outlook' and 'age' go together is a point to argue, but there's no preference embedded for one or another. (Apart from the preference reader bears himself)

I personally don't find "young at heart" to be a very good compliment, and it's NEVER been used to refer to me. Instead, I've been told that I'm "an old soul" -- a compliment that I actually treasure, because it recognizes the value and strength of wisdom that comes from experience.

I do not like any of those phrases that I feel are ageist. Young at heart sounds silly, childish, corny as do many other coined phrases directed at wise elders. The one word I feel is horrible toward older women is "honey." I do smile and say excuse me when I hear ageist remarks. Makes the one using the words stop and think (sometimes). Interesting comments above. -- barbara

Thank you for this post because it has made me ponder what it means to be young and to be old. Often the old and the very young are good pals, because the old have time and patience to stop and look. Playfulness is imagination, humor, impulsiveness and old people can retain that--sometimes better than their middle-aged counterparts still chained to a career. In fact, old age has allowed me to become younger at heart than I was during my working years.

I think you quite nicely just described what it is to be old at heart.

The one I love is: you look so good....after they find out my age. Well, I just give them Gloria Steinam's response & say this is how 75 looks:)And then I remind myself that "getting old ain't for sissies." Dee

I completely agree. Young at heart is just another ageist euphemism for being old. It's sad to see how much older adults internalize these ageist messages. Phrases like young at heart and senior moments are often used in an apologetic style to gain some kind of rapport. Ugh.

It's time to reclaim the word old! James Hillman writes beautifully about the rich values of oldness and old in his book The Force of Character. One of the songs in my musical revue A New Wrinkle focuses on reclaiming the word old. You have written eloquently before this on why we need to reclaim ageist language--today's essay is another excellent contribution to raising awareness. Thank you.

I notice Marietta that you end with the phrase "younger at heart" in a positive way. I am very sensitive to ageism and remarks that are patronizing and those that place a greater value on youth. But I do not have a problem with young at heart. The years of unfolding and growing, i.e., youth, hold an excitement that can't be denied and that some of us can continue to experience that all our lives is a great gift. It differentiates those of us who are "old" from those of us who are merely "older." I made this distinction in my own mind when I was around 18 seeing the difference in attitudes and behaviors among my grandparents generation.

My husband died on January 30th. He would have been 87 on March 15th. Sorry Ronnie, but he was mighty young at heart. He gifted me with love and laughter and some truly wonderful memories.

The Today show has a segment called "Forever Young". If that were true Matt Lauer would still have his hair.

Yes, yes, yes to this post. Even 'ageless' which someone called me the other day, still carries the ageist implication that being old is not OK. If someone tells you that you are young at heart, just say "Since I haven't had transplant surgery, my heart is the same age as the rest of me."
Or, using the technique they advocate on the Old Women's Project website, just look the person straight in the eye and say "What do you mean?" I like that technique because it really makes people think about what they've said and in trying to justify it they reveal their (usually unconscious)ageism, thereby providing us with a teachable moment.

I am thinking that, when I look at nature, living things go through cycles, at the end of which they are frail and withered and dry. They have no choice to keep their lively juices flowing. While we humans also go through that cycle, we can also choose to keep lively and "juicy" our playful attitudes, openness to new experiences, energetic curiosity -- the ways of living and feeling associated with those in the early stages of the life cycle: youth. I believe that you can be an "old soul" (wise and experienced) and "young at heart" (lively and curious and engaged) at the same time. It's making the most of what there is in your life's continuum. "Young" is not a bad word. And both "old" and "young" are as much metaphors as states of being.

Youth is glorified in many ways in our culture. You have written about this often and "young at heart" is just another example. The implication is that most elders are stodgy and dull while those that still enjoy fun things are not. Why do you have to be young to enjoy a carousel? I would still ride the giant wheel in Venice or London given the opportunity.

Young at heart, what does that mean really, running out in traffic toddler young, still learning manners young (like the speaker), have no life plans young? I look younger than my age. I was carded well after age 30. I didn't like that and was hard put to prove my value in the workplace because I looked young, meaning immature and untested. In my forties I was glad when told I looked "young." I was a working mother of two sons and felt like Methuslah, and was worried about keeping my job because I wasn't so young. This is especially a women's issue. Around 50 the remarks began to annoy me. I'll be 70 soon and those "how can you be that old" remarks really nettle me. Now I say to them "how rude of you." What I am and always have been is resilient and light hearted same as at age 10 or 100 if I live that long.

"An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing,
and louder sing,
For every tatter in its mortal dress."
I like Yeat's attitude. Halfway through year 71, and retired a year and a half due to medical problems, I look forward every day to a regimen of writing poetry, a novel, a memoir,essays, and reading everything in sight. I can't bicycle 30 miles any more, but I spend more time laughing at the absurdity of our species and enjoying every day. And yes, I bridle at the "honeys" and "sweeties" I somtimes hear from well-meaning store clerks. When someone tells me that "You look much younger than your age," I usually tell them that someday someone may say that to them, if they're lucky enough to get where I am on the journey.

Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you're young at heart
For it's hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind
If you're young at heart

You can go to extremes with impossible schemes

You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams

And life gets more exciting with each passing day

And love is either in your heart or on it's way

Don't you know that it's worth every treasure on earth

To be young at heart

For as rich as you are it's much better by far

To be young at heart

And if you should survive to 105

Look at all you'll derive out of being alive

Then here is the best part, you have a head start

If you are among the very young at heart


I have to admit, I've always loved this song, especially sung by Jimmy Durante.

But, I do get it. I love Celia's response!

The phrases "young in spirit" and "young at heart" don't offend me.

Their synonym is joie de vivre, and if you have it at any age, you're young in spirit.

Yes, words do matter, but I think we can get into a tizzy a little too quickly sometimes over "ageisms."

Better to smile, relax and enjoy life. It's over all too quickly anyway.

At 80, I'm constantly told I don't look it, possibly because I still stand tall and straight and walk fast. I also use Steinem's phrase: "This is what 80 looks like." But I dislike the "young at heart," so am pleased with this posting.

I enjoyed this post and all the comments. I take comments like you are "young at heart" with an eye to the commenter and try to respond fittingly. An example: I helped in my grandchildrens' Waldorf school handwork classes on Tuesday. One of the boys in the 3rd grade class introduced himself and I responded "I'm Lillian's Grandmother." He looked at his nearby classmates and said, "this is Lillian's grandmother" and then back and me and said, "and, you are very old!" Sometimes laughter is the only response!!

"You look nice" can be delivered in a patronizing way but it's not the words themselves that are the problem. It depends on context and tone. I think to some extent this may be true of "young at heart". After all, who, at any age, would not want to be "young at heart" and trust me, I've met some pretty uptight 40 somethings who were anything but.

Right or wrong, I've always equated being young at heart/spirit with being open-minded, flexible, active, participatory and willing to look at life from different perspectives. Given that definition I must agree with several responders who think it's not such a bad thing.

I don't mind looking a few years younger than 75, either. Do women (men, too) ever totally forsake all traces of vanity as we age? My guess is that most of us don't. I'd be silly to try looking 50 again--or even 60--but like Catherine I intend to walk tall (which isn't easy at 5'2") and stand up straight for as long as I possibly can!

Maybe I'd prefer not to be characterized as "old" simply because of the social and cultural baggage associated with that word in our society, but I'm grateful to have gotten this far. I think I'll hang on to the young at heart part of me anyway. BTW, I detest ageism (and most other "isms") and I'm nobody's "honey" except my husband's.

"Young at heart" doesn't particularly offend me, probably because it's the way I think of myself. There's a decided disconnect now between what I see in the mirror and what I still am inside. "Young at heart" reassures me that others also recognize the aging body is not the real me and that the real me inside is unchanged -- still as intelligent, alert, curious, and engaged as always. (It amuses me that it amuses others that I'm a diehard gamer, for example. But it was also the best way I knew to explain to my ophthalmologist that my vision was becoming blurred; I could no longer read the TV screen well enough to play my games.)

Anyway, that's how I usually interpret "young at heart," although as with most language, it depends on tone and context. And if people are displaying polite (not patronizing) deference to my obvious age, that's fine. I enjoy it and I've earned it. (Besides, it's not like I can do anything about it.)

I look in the mirror and it's not me anymore...

My pet peeve is "She must have been a beauty when she was young." I say, "she is!" If you're moved to say that, she still is a beauty."

The thing about that phrase, young at heart, is so often the young aren't particularly admirable. They zero in on things, become obsessed and unhappy when something doesn't go right. They do not have the perspective that age will give them. The meanness in high school is no myth where the kids brutalize the weak. I saw it when I was there and hear my granddaughter's stories at 13 where she is hearing of one friend cutting another down and then trying to force her to take sides. But reality is the old actually can act that way also. The stories that go out of some of these communities like Sun City pretty well say you don't automatically get smart when you get old. So perhaps we need words that don't relate to an age to describe adventuresome, flexible, daring, loving, giving, willing to change and experiment with new things. Those are things someone can be/or not be at any age. Why do we think it's only the young who can be that way so we must say we feel young to show we are still out there in the game. People are so much more than a number.

People say, "Youth is wasted on the young." I say, "Don't begrudge them their youth, for that's all they have." What I mean is, they have their beautiful strong bodies, but they don't have all the knowledge, wisdom, experience, richness, depth, etc., that they will have to live many more years to attain. Try to imagine how empty and difficult the young years would seem if they didn't even have their young bodies to enjoy.

I don't mind "young at heart" because I think, like others, that it means still being open to change and enjoying life. I know many who are "young at heart," even some in the nursing home here, and many younger folks who are "old at heart." We age. How we age is our choice, and frankly, I prefer to be young at heart and still eager to learn.

Oh Rain, what you say is so true. You can be youthful at any age - you can be old at any age.

great post, Ronni. I have always disliked when people say something like "she is 95 years young". My Uncle lived well into his 90's and he was youthful, but he felt annoyed and insulted when people placated him with goofball expressions about his age. He was proud of growing older and thought denying age was "weird". My Uncle is one of my role models!

Interesting, comforting discussion! I just spent four days out of state with my sorta Gramma, 97. Still living alone though she stopped driving. When I think about the age/youth continuum, I see immediately that my inner concepts are totally shaped by the elders in my family and community. When someone says "old" I see rel people & their capabilities, shaping my conceptions.

How they were treated in the couple of communities I grew up in probably constitutes where I got my imprinting.

Maybe because I had happy, capable older role models (well, a few), getting older feels ok. That and the refirgerator magnet on my fridge which states, "Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what the hell happened..."

As usual,Shakespeare said it best:

"Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time."

Anyone else might have said,"I look in the mirror and my Mother looks back at me"

I'll be 72 this June. I'm now 71 inside and outside and all around. I'm happy with who I am. Why would I want to be other?
You've made an excellent point Ronni. Thanks for sharing it.

Ageist language continues to prevail, so I'm glad you're focusing again on the issue.

I've always liked the tune, "Young At Heart" as sung by Frank Sinatra and numerous other vocalists. Literal word translation would make the phrase ageist. Perhaps I'm deluding myself, but I interpret the phrase as a whole in such a way the words are not ageist to me. I think of "heart" symbolizing the center of my being. "Young" in the phrase context symbolizes many of the feelings I experienced when chronologically younger than I am now. With those words, combined in that phrase, I do experience that concept now which in no way negates my acceptance of my current older age -- or indicates that I think I'm still young in actual years.

Then, there's "You're only as old as you think you are." Now, I have a problem with that statement.

I'm with you, Ronni.

I have a ready retort to people who call me "young lady". I respond that I'm certainaly not "young" and the term "lady" is very much misapplied!

Also have a standard response to anyone who refers to me as a "girl". I simply tell them that I have not been a girl since I hit puberty and began menstruating, and ask them to simply refer to me as a woman or a human, neither young nor old!

Miki, I'm with you on "young lady." It infuriates me when men, usually younger than I, call me that. I respond with "little man" in just their tone of voice, though I know it is mean. The looks on their faces are priceless.

I believe the dislike comes more from who's saying/telling you , "you are young at heart" and how close you are to them. If a stranger off the street told me "Why you are young at heart" -- I'd be offended. Who are they to analyze me so soon and not only that share their analysis? It can also be their tone of voice when they are saying the phrase. It's not necessarily the phrase itself that irritates me. I see how it could be ageist. I personally do not find it ageist when said in a pleasant tone or by someone who is close to me that I actually love/like.

The comments to this entry are closed.