It seemed innocuous. The very nice, white-haired instructor for the Compassionate Aging webinar I was watching switched seamlessly from talking about us getting older to labeling us as “the elderly.” She continued talking, but in my head, everything screeched to a halt.
You mean like old, infirm, borderline useless, and a step or two away from the grave? Oooh, I did not sign up for that. And while not everyone may share my view of the underlying meanings of the word “elderly,” there’s a big, big problem we need to be aware of when it comes to language.
Whenever someone adds “the” before labeling a group, it strips people of their individuality and melds that group into one mass, as though they could then be studied, prodded, and shelved.
Labeling happens all the time, of course. It’s common to talk about Boomers and Millennials as though members of each group act in lockstep with each other. The same is true for the 40 million people in the U.S. over 65. But do we all act and think alike? Of course not.
This is not a rant against ageism, however. Instead, consider your own use of language. If you’re over 50 (or over 30 if you’re living in Silicon Valley and already getting Botox injections), have you ever said, “I’m old” or “I’m too old” or “I’m getting old”? Probably. And while your body is changing and there may be things you can’t do any longer, that does not mean you’re less-than, has-been, washed-up, or over-the-hill, which are the implicit meanings of those phrases.
Regardless of your age, you’re only “old” if you tell yourself you are.
Talking about being “old” leads to using age to diminish people, particularly ourselves. We might try to joke about it, but this traps us into negative thinking and limiting behaviors, and holds us back from living as fully as we can to our final day. It’s a sucky way to live.
So how do we talk about this time in our lives? There’s not a lot of agreement on terminology. Chip Conley in Wisdom@Work suggests we are “Modern Elders,” conferring wisdom on those who’ve lived a lot of years. Ashton Applewhite in This Chair Rocks, however, prefers “Olders” or “Old Person in Training,” since she objects to people deserving respect purely because of their age.
The superpower would be not using labels at all. With respect to Ashton, Chip, and others who've written about aging, what if we just talk about Being — not being older or wiser, just being. After all, in the arc of your life, you’re just accumulating day after day and experience after experience. There’s not a magic (or evil) moment when a switch is flipped and you’re suddenly older or wiser, you’re just You on the next day.
If you really need a way to talk about this time in your life or in others’ lives, how about “this later time of life” or your “second half”? That respects the dimension of time, which is the only true distinction among the ages, and reduces the likelihood of slapping a label on yourself or someone else, or on this rich new time of possibilities.