Baby boomers are not “old” at 60 or “elderly” at 70. Most of us are active and relatively healthy through those decades and beyond. Time to change the labels for aging.
WE need new terminology for aging, something that reflects the changing reality of what growing older is like in this country.
Anybody over 50 knows what I’m talking about, from getting your AARP “welcome to senior living” invite when you’re still raising preteens to reading about so-called “elderly” people who have barely passed average retirement age. Or worse, hearing yourself referred to as “old” when you know perfectly well you’re just getting started.
The truth is our labels for life’s stages are increasingly out of sync with what most of us are experiencing. Today’s culture describes people from 40 to 60 as middle age. After that, you’re pretty much over the hill. From 60 to 70 or so, you’re a senior citizen, retiree, old, or, my favorite, older, as in “that older gentleman over there.” After that, the word too often heard is “elderly.”
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For a rising chorus of baby boomers the labels don’t fit. We’re not “old” at 60 or “elderly” at 70. Most of us are active and relatively healthy through both those decades and increasingly beyond.
I know we have bigger things to worry about, but language is important. It shapes how we think about things. Consider the classic examples of Inuits in Alaska having dozens of words to describe snow, while the Japanese have words to describe a kind of personal shame we don’t even acknowledge exists. Language reflects what’s important to us and communicates our feelings as well as thoughts. And it’s always evolving. However, it often lags behind the cultural changes that make the old labels start feeling out of date or too confining.
Which brings me to my point. It’s time for an update. And, yes, I have a few suggestions. Drum roll, please.
Let’s assume five basic life stages, each comprising roughly 20 years:
• Birth to 20 years: Childhood
• 20 to 40 years: Youth
• 40 to 60 years: Early middle age
• 60 to 80 years: Late middle age
• 80 to 100 years: Elderhood.
There, don’t you feel better already? And that, of course, is the point.
Labels matter, and these feel a whole lot better and more fitting than what we have now. Sure, we could quibble that some people are adults at 18 or others on their last legs at 70, but let’s not. Let’s choose what feels right and makes us feel good. Late middle age clearly sounds a whole lot livelier than old age. And becoming an elder has a lovely, dignified ring to it, no?
We don’t need an act of Congress to make it official. If you agree, just start thinking (and talking) with that framework in mind. The more we do it, the more it will be shared and become the norm.
I, for one, am thoroughly enjoying my late middle age, and I’m feeling good about the next stage, too. Elderhood at 80 sounds just fine to me.