What’s In a Name?

Forbes posted an article last week that revisits the debate over what to call those of us who are of a certain age. Writer Howard Gleckman reviewed some of the euphemisms that have been used over the years. The point seemed to be about avoiding the stigma of negative aging stereotypes.

Some terms—like senior citizens, seniors, the elderly, elders, and retirees—have been rejected by many baby boomers. In light of that, AARP switched from its full name, the American Association for Retired Persons, to the acronym. (Distancing from terms now held in disdain can also be seen in KFC dropping its full name, Kentucky Fried Chicken.)

People who are getting old don’t like words that remind them of the fact. I ran into this issue while doing research for my dissertation on spirituality and aging. The women I interviewed, all over 60, strongly resisted the use of certain terms like old, but they couldn’t agree on what term should be used instead.

The hunt continues for new terminology to identify the old. One that I’ve run across is gerontos, which doesn’t make sense, given that many people don’t know what is meant by gerontology. Besides, it sounds ugly and that defies the whole point, right?

Another term I’ve seen was proposed by anti-ageism advocate Ashton Applewhite, olders. Not sure that one has legs. Gleckman discussed perennials, which suggests that as we continue to grow and age, we blossom over and over. I like the imagery of that. Carstensen, the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, says she likes the term because with it we can “shift away from fear of growing old and toward embracing living long.”

But Gleckman doesn’t like referring to aging that way. Focusing on continuous growth means ignoring the times of serious challenges. “We may live relatively healthy and active lives into our 80s, but many of us will face a period of a year or more when we will be frail,” he notes.

Still, given that the majority of people and the majority of later years still hold the promise of further development and growth, many experts maintain that we need an optimistic term to remind people that aging is so much more than frailty and decline.

So here we are. Just as normal-sized women struggled to move from fat to plus sized to curvy, older adults are having to wrestle with developing new language to shed a more positive light on aging. In 1998, Lauren Hill wrote a song for Aretha Franklin, “A Rose is Still a Rose.” By whatever name we give it, aging is still aging—a multifaceted experience rich with opportunities to grow. Until the perfect new term comes along, I will be grateful for being able to experience growing old.

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