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Aging & Society

Is the Word ‘Old’ Getting Old? Three Authors Weigh In

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“Old” can be a polarizing word.

We were reminded of that recently at the New Old Age conference, which Pfizer sponsored. There, several attendees stated that they never — ever — refer to themselves as “old,” and seemed uncomfortable with anyone using the word with pride.

At Get Old, of course, we use that word with pride all the time. We see the word as a form of acceptance and empowerment. It’s not a bad word. It’s a word we’ve earned, and a word we flaunt. It's our way of doing what we can to change the culture to see aging as a positive, not a negative. Wanting to explore the topic, we decided to reach out to a few authors whom we’ve interviewed in the past and see how they feel about the term “old.” Do they use it? If not, what words do they prefer?

Here’s what they shared:

Mindy Greenstein, PhD, psychologist and co-author, Lighter As We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging

“When my son was seventeen, he came home from class one day, and announced, ‘My Social Studies teacher is really old!’

‘How old do you think she is?’ I stupidly asked.

‘Your age, Mom!’ was his reply.

The problem with the word ‘old’ is the way it automatically puts the person described into the ‘other’ category, a peripheral group outside the mainstream. Old, relative to what? 

When Dr. Jimmie Holland and I were writing our book, Lighter As We Go, we went through many different adjectives before we realized the problem wasn't the words, it was the ageism that deems any words suggesting age to be offensive. If we as a culture appreciated aging, the word ‘old’ would be considered a positive, the sign of a mature and wiser mind rather than a weaker body. We finally settled on ‘elder,’ but, in truth, until society changes, there will be no best word. And once society does change, there will be no need to figure out what word is the least offensive.”

Read more from Greenstein in our piece, “Getting ‘Better’ with Age Isn’t Just for Wine and Cheese.”

John Leland, New York Times reporter and author of Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old

“I usually use ‘older people’ or ‘older adults’ when talking about a general population, and ‘elders’ when talking about specific individuals, like the six people over age 85 in my book. Or when possible, Mr. Jones, 87, or Ms. Smith, without an age if it's not relevant. I try to avoid euphemisms like ‘seniors.’ But the words I police these days are ‘young’ and ‘youthful’ — 'he stays young by doing X,’ or ‘she's a youthful 91’— when what people really mean is energetic or vigorous. Say ‘He stays energetic’ or ‘She's vigorous.’ Because 91 can be frail, robust or anything in between, and if we call people 'youthful' or say they 'stay young,' we define 91 as something more limited than we know it to be.” 

Read more from Leland in our piece, “Happiness and Aging: What One Author Learned

Chip Conley, author, [email protected]: The Making of a Modern Elder

“We have five generations in the workplace for the first time in history. My book, [email protected] introduces the term ‘Modern Elder’ that came to me when I was one of the oldest employees at Airbnb, collaborating with some of the brightest young minds in Silicon Valley. ‘Older’ is relative. Feeling as if we’re growing ‘old’ comes from a fixed mindset. Growing ‘whole’ requires a growth mindset. I believe it’s time we reclaim the term ‘elder’ to include those of us in midlife who embrace the role of not just a wisdom keeper, but a wisdom seeker, too. When we are open to learning and serving — as student and sage — then ‘older’ becomes irrelevant. And we remain relevant, whatever the date on our birth certificates. 

Read more from Conley in our piece, Mutual Mentorship is the Way of the Future. Here’s Why.

Do you use the word “old?” Why or why not? 

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