Life Expectancy at 65 Increases
Elder Women and Eleanor's Hope

To Reclaim the Word “Old”

As I have explained here many times in the past, I made a deliberate decision when I began this blog a decade ago to never use old-age euphemisms - those cutesy-poo names like golden-ager, third-ager and oldster along with the offensive ones such as coot and biddy.

For similar reasons, I also avoid senior, senior citizen and mature because they are meant to hide the idea of old age.

Instead, my references would be straight forward – old and older, as grammar requires - and a push to reclaim elder beyond its too-limited usage for church and tribal persons of age.

As I regularly try to remind you, dear readers, there is nothing wrong with being old but you wouldn't know that from even some elders themselves.

Every time I write about the demeaning language old people are subject to, I can count on a number of comments insisting that language doesn't matter or that people who use demeaning language for old people are only trying to be kind.

No. Language intended to mask old age is not kind; it reinforces the idea that growing old is bad.

Last week, the British classicist Mary Beard spoke at the Cheltenham Literary Festival about why reaching old age should be a source of pride. As The Independent reported:

"The 59-year-old also said attempt to pay someone a compliment by saying they did not look their age was 'one of the weirdest bits of double-think in our culture.'

“'I’m really trying to do that to reclaim the word old. I think about it in terms of other kinds of reclamations of vocabulary we've had over the years, such as "black" or “queer,” she said, according to The Daily Telegraph.

“'I'm rather keen for a campaign to do that for old, instead of "old" instantly connoting the hunched old lady and gentleman on the road sign, or the picture that you get on the adverts you get for senior railcards.'"

Whew! I've been banging on about the glory and honesty of the word “old” for ten years so I am pleased to have someone of Ms. Beard's stature joining the campaign. It's about time.

And it also seems a good occasion to repeat the great George Carlin's outstanding riff on the abomination of euphemisms for “old” that I've posted before.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Clifford Rothband: Who, What, When and Why?


Great post today! I tell everyone that I'm old & especially dislike the word golden ager which is so off base.........Thanks, Ronni for keeping it real! Dee

I think you're fighting an uphill battle here, Ronni, to redefine the word 'old.' It's not just with people that the word 'old' has a negative vibe. Cars, houses, software, fashion, phones, etc., etc., all get old and/or worn out.

I am old and worn out and I call myself old or elderly all the time. A surprising number of people will correct me, saying, "You're not old!" If not old at 72, what exactly am I? Other cultures place a higher value on old people but that's never going to happen here in the USA, no matter how many people jump on your band wagon.

Great post! Most of my career has been working with seniors, and I've heard all the names and slurs. I've made it to 66 and I'm proud to say I'm old, as did most of the people I treated.

Yes to reclaiming the word OLD, a necessary part of consciousness-raising about growing old, in a way similar to the use of slogans like Black is Beautiful and Sisterhood is Powerful in the Sixties, which shifted our concepts about blackness and women. Why do older people collude with negative views of OLDness and aging? It is frustrating.

Carlin's comments are "timeless", funny, so truthful and fresh even though he has "passed away". Let us rejoice and enjoy the now and not the deny the life that has been given us and our co-habitants on planet earth regardless of their age.

When someone complements me for not looking my age, I reply by saying it' s my genes. This is my way to give credit to my ancestors and at the same time inform and deflect the intended complementary words. In truth such words are insulting to me, the person. But let's face we really want to be on the defense all the time? I don't....

When someone says that I don't look my age, I just smile and say, "Actually, this is what 68 looks like!"

I don't mind being called "old", Senior Citizen", "Old Timer" or any of the usual euphemisms.However, the first person that calls me "Pops" is gonna' get it.

Some of the reasons the advertisers and companies "sillify" the old (often by depicting us with grey hair and 50ish skin & body) is to keep us economically viable for their products and offerings. We are, I think, the first generation in the US that was exposed to large-scale use of cosmetics and ways to appear young. Many elders still cling to that illusion and thereby distance themselves from using terms such as OLD and ELDERLY. I'm ok with those two words.

I'd rather we not use any words to differentiate one person from another except where necessary, and know there's no way in hell that's going to happen for most occasions... but life is softer and open to more possibilities of communal enjoyment at those times.

The neighborhood organization that I have been attempting to hold together for over a year now (and it's been going relatively well, actually) met last night for our monthly get-together. A speaker from the regional Area Agency on Aging spoke and it was a lively discussion, with much intelligent and helpful input from the audience. The neighborhood represented is one of middle or lower-middle class, mostly white homeowners, primarily female who have been in their homes for decades. If the speaker had not referred to some of the requirements for program participation as being 55 or 60 or 65, I'm not sure there would have been any reference to age at all. It just felt good to feel that we were sharing experiences common to most of us, and trying to support one another in the process.

Right on Ronni. To paraphrase my man James Brown, "Say it loud, I'm old and I'm proud."

Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard wrote about the impact of that song in his review of the recent James Brown movie in the Huffington Post last July:

Before that song, if you wanted to start a fight with a man of color, all one had to do was call him black. Up until the mid-sixties, we were trying define ourselves: not colored anymore, now Negro. But black was not something we called ourselves. And along comes this little man and proudly states, "I'm black and I'm proud!" He took the thing that the oppressor used to bludgeon us and made it a weapon of pride for us.

That song caught on like wildfire. One day, our heads were down, the next day, our heads were held high, proud of who we were. We had all these groups, civil rights groups, Muslims, Panthers, but it was JB who gave us our swagger. That song lifted up an entire race! He put us on his back and carried us. Dr. King gave us our rights. JB gave us our dignity. Civil rights icon? You better believe it.

When that song came on the radio, cars stopped in the street. People turned up their radios, came out of their houses, and sang along with it; radio stations put it in a loop and played it for hours. The next day people greeted each other with "Hello, black man!" "My black brother." JB made black beautiful overnight.

Words can wound or they can uplift. You have reformed me, Ronni. I used to call myself a Senior, but now I never use that word. I am an elder and I am very old.

George Carlin touched on a use of words for dying that irritate me more than being called an old biddy. I really cringe when I hear that someone "passed" or "passed away". They died; pure and simple. I am going to die. I am not going to expire, pass away or go to a mythical place called heaven.

Great post!

re darlene, i think i'll just croak; that one always appealed to me. i won't treat the last experience as being any more special or dignified than the rest of them that make up a life.

Count me in. I'm old--not older, not a Senior Citizen. I've also referred to myself as a Little Old Lady in writing and in speeches--for comic effect.

What I hate even more than terms like Senior Citizen is condescending language like "Dear," "Sweetie," or "Hon." Those terms tend to be used more in some parts of the US than in others, but I really dislike being addressed that way.

My mother was in three different nursing homes for a total of 18 years before she died, and she was spoken to as "Sweetheart," "Sweetie,"Sweet Pea," "Honey," and even "Little Peanut," (she was petite and very slim)and she hated it...really hated it. I can't tell you how many staff members I talked to about how much it upset my mother, and yet it continued. I wonder what else I could have done to get it to stop.

I refer to myself as old, although I am not ready to regard myself as elderly. I do like the term 'senior' though. I am happy to be a senior, which has a slight connotation of privilege.

I too, hate being called 'hon' or 'dear' by strangers. But that practice has been going on for decades, not just as I got old. I am stumped when I am addressed as 'Miiss' though. Why can't I be addressed as 'Madam'? That is the way I was addressed in London, and I loved it!

I don't like the cutesy euphemisms either. But there is nothing cutesy, derogatory, or evasive about "senior" or "senior citizen." In fact, "senior" derives from the Latin "senex," meaning old. You can't get any more straightforward than that. The Online Etymology Dictionary even points out that "The Latin word yielded titles of respect in many languages, such as French sire, Spanish señor, Portuguese senhor, Italian signor." I use "old," "senior," and "senior citizen" interchangeably, for I've earned them all and am proud of it.

I've been singing the same song, as well, Ronni. I'll send you a PowerPoint I've done on it.

Totally agree! So grateful to have lived to be proudly OLD.

I'll take a Senior Citizen discount any day. But it really bugs me when someone refers to us as so-many-years "young." Boy, does that one grate!

Old is somewhere on a continuum. I am 20 years older than one of my favorite friends. I am 5 or 10 years younger than friends who are retired with me. I search terms such as old, senior, retired, aging, single with no children, no long term care insurance, multi-age communities, … to find a safe and rewarding space for the duration. If you aren't already old, you will be. Get over it and get on with it - preferably with exhilaration and joy.

Old is a good word, but one of the big problems is we look at disease and call it old.
Old people are beautiful. Diseased old people, not so much.
As seniors (not juniors) we need to educate society to the difference between "healthy and old", and "diseased and old".
If I am comfortable with my status as an old person, then how others label or stereotype me does not cause me grief. They are all aging also!
The real problem is that I myself am not comfortable with being old. What a big experience! Further more,some people spend a long time in "old age".
I do appreciate bloggers who share their heart felt experiences and feelings and thoughts about aging since I am still trying to figure it

It's a myth that other cultures put a greater value on being old. Nope, they don't. China is very ageist, openly and overtly. You are an old woman at 40+. Your job in life is to retire early and babysit, do tai chi in the park. India is the same. No modern culture reveres the old, the only reason you see them looking after the elderly is that there is no social safety net.

It's also a myth that trying to look younger is new. I like reading old magazines, newspapers and ads from the past and it was common to advertise hocus pocus potions to keep your youthful glow, for well over 100 years.

I like old, and elder, can tolerate senior. I will call someone in my age cohort a "coot" if he has forgotten that good manners ought to be displayed even if one's mother is dead.

What I really hate is being called "young lady" by a person who thinks he's being complimentary.

And I like the British term, "diamond geezer", words of admiration.

I couldn't agree more. My mother used to call herself and my dad "senior citizens" and it made me grit my teeth, vowing I would never use that term for myself and I haven't. But, like most other women on this site, I hate, hate, hate even more to be called honey or sweetie or dear or young lady. I wonder why, if we all hate it so much, we have not made our feelings clear when people use those terms. Personally, I haven't quite had the courage to say "don't call me that" because I'm assuming the perpetrators mean well, but I'm beginning to think we should all rise up and take back our dignity. Just as African Americans made it quite clear they didn't want to be called "negro" maybe it's time we need to be out and proud and tell those well-meaning but stupid youngsters off. Meg

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