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by Susan V. Bosak
Legacy Project

As people get older, how we think about and refer to them reflects and affects attitudes

Words can lift us up, or they can beat us down. The words we choose convey and influence our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. There's a lot of research that shows that the terms and concepts people use both reflect and affect attitudes. If you call someone old and senile, for example, it can affect both their perception of themselves and the way others perceive them.

Time and events, as well as context, change the connotations of words and the acceptability of certain terms. For example, increased sensitivity has changed the words we feel are acceptable or appropriate for referring to women and various racial groups.

What's in a Name?

The words old, aged, and aging can have positive connotations when we use them to refer to wine or cheese. But they have negative connotations when we apply them to people. Many people spend a lot of time and money not to look "old" or reveal their age. The denial of old age is caused in part by the negative connotations of the word "old" – worn out, useless, obsolete, ugly. "Young," on the other hand, has positive connotations – vigorous, beautiful, fresh, and capable. Neither set of connotations is an accurate reflection of the spectrum of reality.

Ageism in Society

As a society, we're more aware today of sexism and racism. However, we're still very ageist. Since the 1960s, there's been an effort to eliminate the negative stereotypes of and prejudice toward older people. The way we view older people is affected by history and culture. What served us centuries ago no longer serves us. We've changed and the world has changed. We're living longer and the old ways of looking at the old are no longer helpful or appropriate.

The term "ageism" was coined in 1968 by gerontologist Robert Butler. Ageism has been called the ultimate prejudice, the last discrimination, and the cruelest rejection. All societies use age and gender to classify their members, and they have different expectations for each category. But North Americans have developed a set of prejudices and discriminations against older adults that may be unequalled by any other society. Ageism also affects the young. Children should be particularly sensitive to ageism since being told "you're too young" is just as bad as being told "you're too old."

Most of us are more ageist than we are aware. Even a seemingly harmless comment like, "You don't look that old" (which is intended as a compliment) carries the message that "most people that old don't look so great."

Ageism can be positive as well as negative. It's just as ageist to say that older people "should" be healthy, engaged, productive, and self-reliant than to say they aren't. Much less attention has been paid to positive ageism than to negative ageism because positive ageism is less common and it's not perceived to be as harmful. There are at least eight positive stereotypes that many people associate with older people: kindness, wisdom, dependability, affluence, political power, freedom, eternal youth, and happiness. None of these are any more true than the negative stereotypes. For example, people who were unhappy when they were young tend to still be unhappy when they are older. And, although calling someone a "sweet little old lady" isn't negative, it does marginalize them.

How Old is Old?

Until the mid-sixteenth century, "age" referred primarily to a stage or period of human life. Since accurate birth records weren't kept and numerical age had virtually no social significance, few people knew exactly how old they were. All people were aware of was that during the course of their lifetime, they passed through several distinct phases of existence: childhood, youth, maturity, and old age.

When, exactly, does being "old" begin? In one study that compared 60 different societies, there were three basic ways of identifying the category of "old": chronology; change of social/economic role; and change in physical characteristics. Technically, old age in North America means the period of life following your 65th birthday. Old age has been defined in chronological terms since the passage of Social Security legislation in the 1930s. But studies have shown that there's no consensus about when "old age" actually begins or even whether it begins at a fixed chronological age. Even among those who have reached the age of 75, many still maintain that they aren't old. One survey of Boomers said that they thought old age begins at 79. Or, as Bernard Baruch once wrote, "Old age is fifteen years older than I am."

For many, old age begins with a decline in physical or mental ability, rather than with the arrival of a specific birthday.

Most older people know they're old. But the older you get, the more surprised you are when you catch a glimpse of yourself as you pass by a mirror. You're constantly amazed at the "old" person you see reflected back. The simple fact of aging always seems to surprise us – because inside we don't feel any monumental changes.

Age is more than chronological. Age has social and personal meaning. Among people of the same chronological age, there's likely to be great variety in the age category in which they place themselves. In one study, a substantial portion of people in their 40s – just over 40% – described themselves as "young." 40% of people in their 70s described themselves as "old," but surprisingly 6% said they were "young." A majority of people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s consider themselves middle-aged, with the peak of 75-80% in the 50-59 age group. In their 70s, more than 40% of people still use the middle-aged category. The transition to seeing yourself as old doesn't occur for the majority of people until age 80 – surprisingly late in life. It's usually related to poor health and loss of a spouse.

So why is it that people we see as "old" don't see themselves as "old?" A large majority of older people experience aging as a gentle slope and as a positive experience – despite the modestly negative effects of aging on physical and mental functioning, and despite the widespread myths and stereotypes we hold about aging. Older people think of and describe themselves in terms of the themes and meaning of their life, rather than in terms of age. They express a sense of self that is ageless – an identity that maintains continuity despite the physical and social changes that come with old age.

Contrary to popular conceptions of old age, which tend to define it as a distinct period in life, older people themselves emphasize continuity of the ageless self amid other changes across the life course. Even in the face of significant changes in health, functioning, and social circumstances, a large proportion of older adults show considerable consistency over time in their patterns of thinking, activity profiles, living arrangements, and social relationships. They are themselves.

Geezer vs Elder

What do we call people who are "old?" First, we can try to change the way we feel about the word "old" and make it a positive rather than a negative. In fact, we can change what any word connotes or means. Meanings aren't in words themselves; they're in people. The word "cat" has no actual connection to a real cat. We all know what we mean when we say "cat" because everyone has agreed that those three letters put together refer to a specific furry, four-legged animal many people have as a pet. But we could just as easily change our mind and decide to change the name "cat" to something else. In the same way, we can decide that the word "old" means something very positive.

Women, in particular, carry the heaviest burden in being "old" given our youth-oriented culture and the tremendous marketing dollars behind the beauty industry. In the last number of years, groups of older woman have gathered for ceremonies in which they bestow upon each other the title of "crone." These women are taking possession of the word "crone." By embracing the term and its long history, these women create a measure of control over their own place in society. To some, these croning ceremonies may seem absurd; to others, they're a source of empowerment. In the same way, a group of older artisans began calling themselves "geezers" as a playful way to take control of the value of their own creativity and artistic ability. Words can mean new things – if we let them. We live in a culture that denies the legitimacy of old age and has little tolerance for those who dare to challenge its ageism.

In everyday discourse, many of the words we use without much thought to describe older people are biased, inaccurate, and stereotypical. Ageism is reflected in such colloquialisms for older adults as geezer (often seen in the media in the context of "greedy geezers"), coot, crone, geezer, hag, old buzzard, old crock, old duffer, old fart, old fogey, old goat, old maid, old-fangled, old-fashioned, out to pasture, over the hill, and washed up.

There's a lot of debate about what to call old people. No term is without its history and connotations.

The oldest Boomers are just starting to turn 65. Note the absence of "baby" – since they aren't babies anymore. They like to view themselves as being in their "prime time" – a reflection of their ageless self.

"Senior citizen" is a word that comes up when you think of product and service discounts for people over 50 or 55 years of age. Most people today find the term outdated and patronizing. Some don't mind the simpler term "senior" because it implies more experience (as in a "senior" in high school).

The words "elderly" and "aged" are often associated with social service and health programs, hospitals, and nursing homes. They're sometimes used to evoke feelings of sympathy and compassion, and other times used almost synonymously with the word "sickly."

In contrast to the word "elderly," the word "elder" suggests respect and wisdom. However, some argue that it's gender-biased, referring more to men than to women. It may have religious connotations because it can refer to a church position. Also, the term may evoke images of certain cultures, such as Native Americans. When you use a word, you never know exactly what it will bring to mind for someone. If used consistently though, elder could come to be seen as a strong term that may help move our thinking away from overvaluing knowledge and undervaluing wisdom.

"Older adult" and "older people" tend to be the most neutral terms. "Older" is a relative word, since everyone is older than someone else. However, this implies that a person should be defined in relation to younger individuals in society, which some argue adds to the marginalization that's part of ageism. But the word "adult" does connote respect, independence, and responsibility. Younger people want to be treated as adults; so do older people.

Researchers have divided older adulthood into three general groups: "young old" (65-74), "old old" (75-84), and the "oldest old" (85+). When describing the oldest old or older adults with serious physical or cognitive limitations, the term "frail elderly" is often used.

Yet people of all ages would prefer that you emphasize their assets rather than their deficits. There's a tendency to think of the old among us as a high-risk or vulnerable group that's going to drain public and private resources. If this becomes the tone of an aging planning process, then your mind will take you where you lead it. It will limit the possibilities. Many of the "old" can bring valuable assets to their communities, such as discretionary income, time to devote to civic engagement (note the preferred term over "volunteer"), advanced education, professional skills, a developed character and work ethic, and experience.

Bottom line: What you call someone is both a measure of how you see them – hopefully with respect – and a measure of how they see themselves – their sense of self. So, older adult or elder may be the terms that bring with them the most power and potential in everyday communication.

A postscript: How does what we call children reflect their standing? To call a child a baby is to shame them. "Minor" is too legal. Is "kid" a little too patronizing? Then there's youngster, shaver, nipper, and, for the gourmet among us, small fry. If you want to be gender-specific you can use the ever-simple boy and girl. You can break the age-group down further with words like toddler, tot, preschooler, preteen, youth, adolescent, teenager. Top it off with the nostalgic teeny-bopper or the genealogical offspring. Well, here's looking at you, kid.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org