We don’t have the right language to address the experience of growing older and older people themselves. Here are some recent headlines I have come across:
It is interesting to me that, particularly in these examples, older people are characterized by a role that is not at all related to the point of these articles. If these articles were indeed about grandparenting, that would be appropriate. However, they are not.
How about these headlines:
The term geriatric refers to a branch of medicine that focuses on the health of people who have grown older. Neither of these headlines are related to medical situations, yet they use the term “geriatric”.
I think this is reflective of several things. One is our general discomfort of how to refer to older people. It is also indicative of a narrow view of growing older, as if the only way we can think about an older woman or an older man is as a grandma or grandpa. Or in the context of medical care. Perhaps it is also reflective of our need to categorize older people into nice little boxes. Or maybe it is reflective of how we really don’t know who older people are.
So what is the language we can use to talk about the experiences of growing older and who people are as they grow older? There have been numerous debates related to this over the years. Do we call people senior citizens? Older adults? Seniors? Elders? Retirees?
The conversations have mostly been at this somewhat superficial, yet necessary, level. However, in order to really find the right language, I think we need to deepen this conversation. Because it is not just about what words we use to describe a group of older people. It is considering what we are wanting to say about growing older. The very fact that we struggle with what to call people who have grown older is evidence of a conflict. And although I think some of this conflict is driven by wanting to be respectful to elders, and not offending people, there is something deeper that we do not really talk about all that much.
There is a tension or paradox in the language we use that reflects tension in our paradigm about the experience of growing older and how we see older people.
On one hand we want to acknowledge elders or elderhood as something special, unique, different. We want to honor elders as important members of our community, with life experiences to be valued. On the other hand we don’t want to stereotype or group people just based on their age. We don’t want to draw boxes around them so that they are separated from us, or seen as “other”. However, the very fact that we yearn to give this group of people a categorical name is evidence that we DO think of them as different than other (younger) people.
Should we think of them differently? How?
On one hand we want to acknowledge the unique experience of growing older, perhaps by specifically connecting people’s ages with what they are doing or saying. On the other hand, does it matter to distinguish age when we talk about how people are living? Does that abnormalize aging?
I wonder how these headlines above might have been different. Maybe it should simply be “Glamorous Women of Instagram, at Any Age.” We seem to be uncomfortable saying “61-year old MAN” vs “61-year old GRANDPA”. And maybe it seems important to reference a person’s age. Perhaps this is because we want to highlight an achievement and make a point about their age in attaining this achievement. But then it is as if we are saying, “Despite this woman being 65, she is fashionable! Can you believe it!” or “Despite this man being 61, he is fit! That is crazy!” We wouldn’t expect to see a headline that says, “Glamorous Teenagers of Instagram” or “Handsome 25-year-old Man Models at Milan Fashion Week”. Is that because this is considered “normal”?
On one hand we want to celebrate elderhood. On the other hand, we want to see people not for their age but for who they are as individuals.
There is a paradox in this, a tension that I think is really important to consider and talk about. How do we strike a balance in which we are honoring people for their life experience, and considering their unique place in our life span, but also acknowledging they are not just their age. How do we celebrate older people for who they are as secondary to their age, not despite their age?
Perhaps we need to get to a point in which we don’t need to be surprised that an older person is glamorous or strong. Certainly it is important to show positive examples of growing older, and I do think this is part of what will change the culture of growing older. Yet, I also think we need to be careful and thoughtful about not suggesting that there is an archetype to growing older. You don’t need to be glamorous or strong to be great. But good for you if you are! It really is a perplexing challenge.
When we relegate people to categories based on their age alone, whether we call it “seniors” or “elders” or “older adults”, there is the danger of attributing qualities to them as a group, rather than as individuals. Whether those qualities are negative or positive. Even when we call people “elders” (which is regarded positively as a respectful term), this might evoke an image – perhaps an attribution to this group that they are all similarly wise or sage. I do believe that elders are wise, because of their life experiences, and that growing older has the potential to transform your view of yourself, others, and the world. However, this likely looks different for each person. Their life experiences serve them in different, unique ways. There are elders who are perhaps “wiser” than others, even though we might ascribe this quality universally to all elders as a category. In this case it is a positive quality, but it does make you think about how categorization is serving us, and the implications for generalizing a group of people based on age alone.
Certainly, we do this with other age groups, but I think it is different. We might generalize about teenagers or millennials, for example. But with older people it seems so much deeper, and we really struggle to see people as individuals outside of these group identities, these boxes into which we put them.
It is not just about our insufficient language for the experience of growing older or people who are growing older. We also don’t have the language for how we support each other as we grow older. I mean the products, services – the system of “care”. Much of the language we use is at worst ageist, paternalistic, and medical. At best, it simply does not adequately characterize a way of supporting people as they grow older (or grow with dementia) that is enabling rather than disabling, dignified, and well…normal. None of this language is adequate to encapsulate unique, diverse human beings who are not necessarily different because they are older, but because they are multidimensional individuals whose dimensions are even more developed through life experience. Who are living life, like we are all trying to do.
We have developed an entire “system” of supports and services for older people whose membership to this group is based on age alone. There really has been very little attention to the individuality of people as they grow older.
How can we differently present and describe supports and services for people as they grow older? Especially in a way that walks this fine line of honoring life experience and membership in a unique stage of life, while acknowledging individuality and normalcy. That does not simplify people into categories like “grandma” or “geriatric”.
Here is a small example that came into my head. I was driving back from the grocery store and I saw a private bus whose passengers were all elders. It was the type of bus that is used by a senior center or care community. As I watched them I thought about how it must be so weird to be on this bus that seemingly advertises that you are all 1) old and 2) not “able” to drive. This bus is so reflective of a categorization of people based on age that suggests all these people are the same. In a way the bus is emblematic of your “dependence”. And yet, how untrue that is. That bus could be bringing everyone somewhere very fun. These individuals could be returning from a civic project in which they volunteered their time. They might have been working on the community garden. Or, helping people register to vote. The reasons for people being on this bus are infinite. But we might just see a bus of old people.
You might be thinking, what about school buses? School buses carry a group of people of the same age. Yet, there is a totally different connotation than a bus of older people. Other than seeing the people on a school bus as students, I don’t think we make assumptions about them as a whole.
So, how could we present this bus of older people in a different way? Could we use a little bit of humor in how we think about and frame these things? What if the bus had signage that said, “On this bus there is __ years of life experience. So be careful!” Or, “The people on this bus raised __ children, served in __ wars, and have been there, seen that.” Or, “Here is some advice from riders of this bus, “Slow down. Pay Attention. Be nice.” Something authentic, and maybe fun, that could change this tragic discourse of “geriatric people” on a bus to seeing them as multi-dimensional human beings. Just like us. Yet different.