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Let’s talk about the word “old”

Updated: Oct 31, 2021

Sharone Shiloach introduced a new term – “age washing” – to describe the laundering of alternative words for the later periods of life.

Sharone Shiloach is a social activist. She initiated and heads “the Gray Panthers.”

Let’s talk a moment about the words “old” and “old age.” There is a kind of insistence in society today to avoid using those terms to describe old people. Other words are pressed into service instead: “senior citizens,” “third [or fourth] generation,” “older adult,” “pensioner,” and so on.

Why, in fact? Because negative cultural conditioning and the reverence for Instagram images has made the word “old” an insult. To be young and called young is cool. It has a social value. To tell a man or a woman that they look young for their age is a compliment. But is it really?

There are those who think we should bury the word “old” deep in the earth, invent alternatives, and hope (in all innocence) that they shouldn’t get stuck with the negative social associations of old age when the years have flown. In my opinion it’s an illusion. The social-cultural context, good or bad, negative or positive, doesn’t really disappear. As long as the context itself is not treated, it will attach itself to whatever Politically Correct substitute is chosen for the original word itself.

Many old people or older adults say that they don’t like to be labeled that way. No surprise there, and no need for studies to substantiate it (though they exist) – because who wants to be called that, regardless of our chronological age? After all, we have been taught from early childhood that old age is bad. And those among us who are actually old, certainly do not want to be so.

So what’s the problem in fact? Why not call people the way they prefer?

In the context of age, finding substitutes for words that have become derogatory because of a culture that worships youth and eyelift surgery is in essence “green washing” the thing itself – which is to say, the actual truth. Here is a new term, if you prefer: “age washing.” If we don’t deal with the negative image of old age that is buried deep in our culture, it will attach itself sooner or later to whatever alternative word we choose – and at the very least it will be a reminder of that word, the one we replaced by something else.

Is it less insulting to call a fat person “heavy,” since “fat” has (regrettably) become a derogatory term as well? Doesn’t the attempt to conceal the original word cry out, and even highlight the original insult? Do fat people have to submit to this? Language and terminology determine reality and define the social balance of power; but they can at the same time solidify submission and insult.

When it comes to old age and aging, I’m not one for political correctness. In my opinion, PC does more harm in the long run. Insisting on alternative descriptions of older people is a “greenwash” of our old age – and I’m against it. It is in fact the essence of the anti-aging industry, no?

Let’s not do an “age wash” of our age. To do that to ourselves and to others implies yielding to social dictates, and acquiescing to stereotypes and prejudices we have about our age. Below all the laundered euphemisms for old age, we still grow old, day by day, from the moment we are born. If we want to take old age out of the closet and be proud of it, there is no point in looking for other terms to describe it, especially since the original word comes from a place of honor, not humiliation.

There is “just” one other issue to resolve, before the linguistic one: Who is “old”? Chronological age alone is no longer a reflection of the physical, mental, cognitive or emotional level of functioning, for men and women alike. Life expectancy, as is well known, has risen by 30 years since the 19th century. We live longer; and old age today, with all its layers and dimensions, is far more complex than it once was. Is someone aged 60 old or an “older adult”? And what about 70 or 80? Those questions have yet to be answered.

A person who has reached pension age is commonly referred to as old, at least officially. But many pensioners resist that label, because the modern society in which they have been raised systematically excludes older people and has done so for generations. So why should they want to be called that, let alone (heavens!) be proud of it?

Instead of apparent solutions to the insult of “old,” using age-washed alternatives, it would be better if the old folks were proud of their old age. And more. I think that avoiding the use of the word “old” perpetuates the social weakness of this age group.

It is obviously easy to write, but harder to implement. I too was born into and educated in a certain social-cultural context, and I am not free of PC. I also think that sectors of the population should not be given labels that offend them. I hope that when I reach old age, I won’t have a problem being an old woman – and let others call me one. I hope to be a proud old woman, proud of my age, my wisdom, my complexity, my beauty and my happiness. We all age day by day, hour by hour, from the day we are born.

And that is as it should be.


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