The management at a dear friend’s assisted care facility just informed her that she would have to move from her ground floor apartment to one on another floor. Why? Because her floor was to become a ‘memory care community.’
“What on earth is a memory care community?” I asked. In short, a floor (or wing, or facility) dedicated to treating (or warehousing?) people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. I suppose it’s no longer proper to refer to such places as an Alzheimer’s wing or the section for patients with dementia.
So it goes in the land of politically correct euphemisms. As Susan Jacoby points out in her new book ‘Never Say Die,’ we dare not say the word ‘old.’ Old is out. Senior is in. Erectile Dysfunction is in. Impotence is out.
At the risk of sounding tedious, try these: infant is OK. So is toddler. Pre-teen works. As do teen-ager, youthful, and twenty-somethings. But as age creeps upward, the language shifts: Don’t utter middle-aged. Proper usage calls for ‘mid-life.’
Even the marketing gurus at ‘Elder Hostel’ have re-branded their venerable organization ‘Road Scholar.’
When it comes to our ‘twilight years’ (sorry), be careful. Something in our psyche flashes yellow and says: “Warning! Watch your language.”
Think about it: Why do we feel compelled to tiptoe around words associated with aging? Sooner or later all of us are going to be old. So, what’s wrong with using the most direct word to describe that stage of life?
Let’s hear from you: Why do you think we shun words about being old when we have no compulsion to re-name other stages of life?
Why is “old” a dirty word? Two reasons occur to me: One is our obsession with youth as the standard for beauty, virility, success. Unlike many cultures, we’ve lost respect for the wisdom and spiritual maturity that comes with years. We don’t honor the courage of survival and the learning that comes from overcoming past mistakes. The second reason may be more benign: compassion. Images of helplessness, suffering, and loss of identity are hard to bear. One solution is more publicity about old people who are active, creative, and contributing good in the world. Think Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama.
Helen McConnell says
Thanks for raising this question. I think the reason we shun direct words about aging is clear. It is the inevitability of aging and the suffering it brings – the losses of mind, physical ability and ultimately of life itself. We resist it so powerfully. We hope that euphemistic speech will lessen the pain and reality of what is happening. We “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yet, isn’t it important for us to reject this trend of denial and rejection of the inevitable reality and find a way to experience the pain with grace, acceptance, humility and compassion, first for ourselves and then for everyone else we know who is have the same experience?
charles stanfield says
Mostly I think the euphamisms are an attempt to deny our mortality. On the other hand old age is not what it used to be. I’ve noticed in old movies and other cultural and literary material from 30 or more years ago that the age of 50 used to be thought of as fossilized. 60 is the new 40 etc.
When I was a kid people thought of themselves differently as they aged and culture re-inforced it too. Folk began to dress dowdily and remember all the blue and off orange hair on older women? So it is double–edged; denial mixed with younger attitudes and healthier bodies at advanced age.
Audrey Beech says
The reason is that “old” is considered a negative quality; we can no longer say “mentally retarded” or “physically handicapped” either. The popular current word is “challenged” in both cases. Audrey Beech
Halee Burg says
I was struck by the absolute truths in your observations, Sig. As a society, on one level, we have become so attuned to our words, to the sensitivities of others, that we have created a plethora of genteel synonyms to avoid triggering negative thoughts or responses in an individual or group about whom we may be speaking or referring. PC is in, frankness is out. Perhaps some of this is due to the expansion during the last twenty-five years in causes of action one may litigate, and the relation of words to those causes of action. The fact that the politically correct verbiage is a mere descriptor and boils down to the very same substance is irrelevant. None of us wants to be described in ways which conjure up negative thoughts or images within us. The fact that each one of us (we hope!) will experience the aging process and become old, with all its attendant baggage, doesn’t matter. I believe much of this wordsmithing is about dignity and self-esteem. At least in my baby boomer generation, “old” connoted frail, wrinkled, ill, perhaps sitting around in one’s rocking chair all day. Contrast that with “elder” and “senior,” which connote an element of wisdom and conjure up notions of respect. None of us wants to be labeled, unless the cognitive images/associations with that label are what we perceive as positive (“kind, generous, outgoing”). Thus, we resist being called “old” in the same way that we resist being called aggressive, bossy, lazy, etc. It’s simply human nature.
Gloria Keeney says
Not much to disagree with in these well- thought comments. I must admit to being in 2 minds about receiving compliments regarding my physical appearance. When I hear “But you don’t look that old. or You are too young to be a grandmother!” I receive it as a compliment and then scold myself for accepting the thought that old must mean weak and something to be avoided at all costs! I yearn for the culture when an elder was respected and known to have more wisdom which was valued and out of reach of the youth. Even though I am “only” 52 I do speak up and reply “Maybe it’s time we re-think what it means to be a grandparent or elderly.” My wish is to return to the knowledge that age has its rewards and deserves respect. And , by the way, a return to the truth that physical appearance is NOT the be all and end all that our culture wants us to believe.