What’s in a name? Professionals and readers reflect

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What’s in a name? Professionals and readers reflect

Some terms meant to be positive are actually patronizing and demeaning.  Really, who thinks of Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger as enjoying their golden years? – Ina Jaffe, NPR Aging Reporter/Commentator

Investigating possible new names for this column continues to be a fascinating and enriching process.  Readers have responded with ideas and I have also been doing research.  Examples of words from both areas will be shared between some paragraphs below.

In a serendipitous coincidence, Ina Jaffe, who covers aging for NPR has been discussing the under-lying issue of what to call the folks who most likely are readers of this column.

“Maybe, once upon a time, elderly referred to a particular stage in life, but now people think it means you are ailing and frail,” said Jaffe to NPR news host Renee Montagne this month.

At the conclusion of that particular broadcast, NPR asked listeners to weigh in regarding the terms for aging that they loved and also the terms they hated.  The winner was “older adult,” although Jaffe said there was not really any enthusiasm for that term as just 43 percent of 2,700 responders said they liked it.

Much more enthusiasm was reflected on the negative side with regard to terms survey responders did not like.  “I can sum up the overall response,” said Jaffe, “by saying that they disliked pretty much everything.”  She said that even expressions often used in a positive context like “positive aging,” “successful aging”, and “golden years” were disapproved of by survey respondents.

In the book Encore:  Finding Work that Matters, author Marc Freedman discusses the term “third age” often used in an attempt to challenge current definitions of aging.  This term, perhaps originating in the Tolkien stories, maintains that the first age of childhood and adolescence is followed by the second age of child rearing and midlife careers, followed by the third age, which precedes the fourth age of frailty and decline.

Column readers have achieved both hard-won wisdom and experience over time.  “Youth may have a lot of information at their fingertips, but seniors have wisdom borne of long years of experience,” wrote the author of “What is The Third Age?” on the web page http://lmb.typepad.com/smart_senior.

Browsing the internet, I saw a comment in response to similar questions that said “I drove by a used car lot.  The sign said “experienced cars available.”  Makes me wonder why we consider older people used up rather than experienced?

As frequent column readers know, this author is a fan of the Eden Alternative founded, developed and taught by Geriatrician and author Bill Thomas. In the Eden vocabulary, the people we think of as seniors are called  Elders.  In a 2012 interview with GeriPal, a Geriatrics and Palliative Care Blog, Thomas explained “I think people have a right to choose what kinds of terms are used to refer to them.  Having that privilege is essential to even a basic level of human dignity.  Second, our language has a limited and quite dismissive aging-related vocabulary.  That said, I use the term “elder” for one simple reason.  I believe that there is life beyond adulthood.  I believe that it is manifested in a developmental stage called “elderhood.”  From there, it is a short leap to recognizing that a child is a person living in childhood and an adult is a person living in adulthood.  Not surprisingly, I see an elder as a person living in elderhood.”

(Keenagers, Silver Foxes, The Sage Brigade, Prime Time, Senior Smart, Merryatrics, Snappy Seniors)

The term elder does seems to include a certain level of respect.  “Call me wise one,” wrote one senior on the internet, “I have earned it.”  Another expressed a very simple and straightforward view:  “Just call me by my name.  That is who I am.  At 70, I still work full time and am a very productive member of society.  Why should someone have to use a belittling title to refer to me?”  I smiled at another posting with someone expressing a similar idea, “My hair is not blue, and I know how to use a computer.”

(Seniority, Omega, Lamba, Delta, Fresh Start Gang, Seasoned Citizens, Pairs N’ Spares, Speeders)

Speaking of productive members of society, a column on the Bowie organization called FISH is in preparation.  Learning about FISH and the ages of many volunteers will knock your socks off.  These people are using their third age, golden years, elderhood or whatever to make a difference in their day to day world.  It’s amazing and incredible. FISH is a another real-life illustration that, no matter what we may be called, we are terrific!

Many thanks to you for participating in this discussion.  You have another week to get your comments and votes in.  The names that receive the most votes will be listed for you in the paper and you’ll have an opportunity to vote for  one of the top three.  It is invigorating to understand that we are in this with you, the reader.  I have found over the years that column readers are passionate and love to talk about life and the things that catch their interest.

Thank you for reading.  Stay well.  See you next week

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