We older people get all worked up about what you call us. You think you’re having trouble defining us? So are we. Maybe we’re sensitive about words because we’re still attempting to define ourselves for ourselves. We haven’t always been this age. Everything old is new to us.
It’s understandable that some people who are celebrating an important milestone that begins the last part of life, and that brings physical changes, and that implies fewer choices – would not want to acknowledge it with a name. It’s as if refusing to agree on descriptions will allow old people to keep from actually getting old.
We – and I include this oldest generation-and-a-half to take in pre-Boomers – were in the forefront of movements in the 60’s and early 70’s that were intended to do away with labels. We fought the good fight but eventually none of us could stop people from calling us whatever they choose. So we are sometimes called Senior or Old or Elderly or Aging. Add to this the men who say “Call me anything but Grandpa” and the women who say “I love my grandchildren, but don’t call me Grandma.”
I’m not personally offended by any of these words. They’re not epithets. They’re mostly attempts to label who we are for the purpose of selling us stuff, marketing being the all-powerful force. Whether the products are cars or political candidates, a great deal of money changes hands according to how many of us fit into a specific demographic.
I don’t mind being identified with the older millions when it comes to advertising. I made a living in advertising for years and I understand target audiences, but I also know of major ways in which advertisers and ad agencies are wrong in their perceptions about how elders think and feel and what we really want. They’re turning old into a cliche and nobody wants to be a cliche. There will be a price to pay someday for these oversights, I hope.
The older I get, the more I resist being perceived merely as a person of a certain age. I know all the ways in which I am nothing like my peers with whom I have in common only the year of my birth. I give up trying to come up with a word that will please everyone. From now on I’m taking it case by case. If a word makes me wince, I consider the intent. If I feel it’s dismissive, I speak up.
I care very much about language that might diminish in any way the respect that should be paid to this very special time of life. It’s our responsibility to set our standards high. The words we’re willing to accept inform the ways we’re willing to be treated.
Ó By Anita Garner