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When is Someone Old? - Part 1: Language

Quite a while ago, Elisa Camahort – a BlogHer founder and keeper of Elisa Camahort’s Personal Blog among the many others she maintains - asked me the definition of old: when is someone old?

There are many answers which differ depending on the angle of approach such as: medical, emotional, mental, cognitive, social, cultural, even consumerist. All of them, however, are hard to know without addressing the nature of the word “old” which in the western world, unless antiques are being discussed, is always pejorative.

Even physicians, social workers, psychologists and others who specialize in studying or caring for elders often use the word negatively by assuming that anyone who is older than about 60 and not behaving in the culturally prescribed manner of a mid-life adult is deficient and therefore no longer requires respect. This sentence, from an organization dedicated to "conscious aging" illustrates the most commonly used cultural definition of old:

“…we have known people younger than 60 who are ‘old’ in their attitudes toward life. They have grown rigid in their preferences and opinions, they are not open to new experiences, they are stuck in their habitual patterns, and they have no appetite for life.”
- Conscious Aging (undated)

That is the general belief about not only everyone whose appearance places them in the elder category, but also anyone younger who exhibits those characteristics. The problem is that instead of saying those people have lost interest in life or are hidebound or close-minded - which happens at any age - people say they are “old”. Here is the first group of synonyms for “old” from an online thesaurus:

aged, ancient, broken down, debilitated, decrepit, deficient, doddering, elderly, enfeebled, exhausted, experienced, fossil, geriatric, getting on, gray, gray-haired, grizzled, hoary, impaired, inactive, infirm, mature, matured, not young, olden, oldish, patriarchal, seasoned, senile, senior, skilled, superannuated, tired, venerable, versed, veteran, wasted

Not a pretty picture. And further groups of synonyms on that page get worse. No wonder younger people hate old people; no one wants to become doddering, enfeebled, hoary, impaired and infirm nor do they want to be reminded that they too will join the ranks of those descriptions one day.

These definitions of old are so entrenched that even many old people believe them. TGB reader Cindy makes an interesting point in a recent comment:

“…after reading your post, the thought came to mind of how people within one societal group will discriminate against its own. Like when women don’t think women professionals are as knowledgeable/skilled as a man in the same profession. It’s extremely subtle, nearly imperceptible, but there. The old discriminating against the old. The ‘young old’ discriminating against the ‘old old.’”

Language is is a powerful tool. The repeated use of verbal memes over time hardens perception and the near-universal negative regard of old people goes back at least as far as Shakespeare who had a particularly harsh view of old age:

“The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

- As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7

One way to know how terrible aging is perceived is by the frequency with which people (who believe they are being polite) tell others, “You don’t look that old.” And it is as common as dirt for people, when mentioning the number of their years on earth, to say, “I don’t feel that old.”

Well, that’s just horsepucky. Since not one of us has any experience of a given age before we get there, we can’t know how it feels until the birthday arrives. Therefore, however you feel at any age is what that age feels like.

What people really mean when they say, “I don’t feel that old” is they don’t feel as awful as they (wrongly) believed people feel at that age. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for nearly half a millennium of misunderstanding.

When Time Goes By was being designed, other decisions about how it would operate were being made, among them that the word “old” would be used as the word “young” is used: as a straightforward descriptor. At the same time, cutesy euphemisms such as golden-ager, third-ager, oldster were banned along with the offensive words, geezer, coot and biddy.

At Time Goes By, it was decided elders would be treated as grownups who don’t need their information sugar-coated with denial as it is by many self-appointed gurus on aging, by the billion-dollar industry of anti-aging hucksters and by elders who cannot or will not admit they are getting old.

It is a small voice in the wilderness of widespread denial exacerbated by a media who have a fetish for youth, but on this blog, old is old.

Everything is interesting if you pay attention and being old, if you will ignore the conventional wisdom of its horror, is a fascinating, new experience. But the language of aging, if we do not improve it, will deprive every one of us, as we get older, of our ability to savor the last third of life.

As you read the future installments of When is Someone Old? over the next week or two, remember that the word “old” does not mean frail, decrepit or feeble. Not deficient, doddering or impaired. It just means old: having lived many years.

When is Someone Old? - Part 2: Medical


My personal definition of "old" is certainly evolving - due to my own natural aging, and in no small part to my participation here at TGB.

I was wondering what single words I could use to define my own experience, so here goes (both the positive and negative):


Yes, there are negative aspects, but checking over my list, I see they are in the minority. Hope it stays that way, but then, I've never been 80...yet!

This morning's NY Times piece on the pressure to not 'old' fits well with what you are saying. It is interesting that on the one hand we are supposed to not look old, but on the other hand there has been the pressure to dress and look age appropriate. So Grandma should look like a grandma used to look. Old isn't supposed to be sexy-- unless it's Helen Mirren and who knows if she's had anything done or not but she looks her age to me and still is beautiful. So much of what is pushed onto the old, to try to hide the changes due to age, is done to make money for somebody. For me, I never fit the 'appropriate' style when young, have never cared to be 'in' for make-up, hairstyle or clothes and have no interest in doing it when old. I am though looking for what will be my own 'look' for this new cycle in which I find myself.

I like that you take on 'old' so emphatically. You will help change the world for us as we all get old.

There is so much truth in this post about how we are described and how we describe ourselves that I have never given a passing thought to. But I'm thinking about it now and I am determined to find a better way to describe myself. Right now I'm thinking about fruit. Green apples are not only tasteless, they can cause convulsions. While ripe apples are so sweet, crunchy, delicious. That thought, of course, has to be reworked, but I'm going to think about it. It's one small way I can help to change the 'language' in my little corner of the world.
And of course, in the meantime, I'm looking forward to your next post in this little series...and thoughtfully studying Cowtown Pattie's great list of positive appellations.

A column like this reminds me not to take my good fortune for granted. My wife and I will celebrate our 39th anniversary in a few months, and we have never been happier. I now work in a place where age discrimination doesn't happen. Making the proper allowances for the amount of life experience I have, I can say that my health is excellent. We have an adult daughter (a teacher in a high needs middle school in a fairly tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY) who would make any parent proud.

All of us elders and soon-to-be elders who read TGB can probably produce similar "gratitude lists." TGB's anti-ageism message is crucial, however, and we all need to keep hammering away at it--remembering that we struggle as much against ignorance as malice. The ignorance of every younger generation, after all, is appalling. I remember when some of my group used to chant "Never trust anyone over 30." Generally speaking, today's young people are not noticeably more insightful than we were.

I have a slightly different take on the expression, I don't feel that old. Of course we don't know how we feel at an age till we get there, but we do know how we felt at past ages. There are times and circumstances when I do feel just like I did at 6 or 16 or 26 etc. and I can't quite believe my "real" age. Is that buying into a stereotype?

I was born on 9th December 1933. Self evidently therefore anyone born before that date is old.
Anyone born after it is a mere stripling, and should mind his or her Ps and Qs or else it's upstairs to bed, and no tea.

I like the word "crone," when applied to elder women. Like all "old" words, it has negative connotations, but, to me, it implies wisdom.

I wish I could find an equivalent word for an elder man. I'm sure I just haven't thought of it, yet!

Ronni - I teach classes to REALTORs about aging issues, senior housing, and how to make their businesses more "senior friendly." We start the class with the question "How do you know when you're old". Inevetibly the class consensus is that the word is tied to physical and mental health.

Here's how old feels to me today. I woke up bright eyed, did some stretches while the coffee perked, and am doing some reading and writing before going for a long walk and attending my Tai Chi class. After that I plan to do some research on plane tickets and hotel rooms for a trip I'm planning. This afternoon I'm picking up my 10 year old granddaughter and we'll probably play a game of Zooreeka or Pokemon this afternoon. Can I sneak in a few chapters of the mystery novel I'm reading? Sure, I can!

When I was in my sixties I often said, "I don't feel that old" and never considered the implications. (Sorry about that.) There were many days when I was in my seventies that I still physically felt the same as I had all my adult life. I took a long trip to Europe by myself, visiting four countries. And that's when I discovered that I felt old. Schlepping suitcases on and off trains was so exhausting that I wondered what in the world I was doing there when I really wanted the comfort of home. It was a sad wake up call for me.

In my eighties there is no doubt in my mind that I am old. So is being old when you are at Cowtown Pattie's last item on her list; limited? I think the term "old" is a generality that doesn't apply to all people in the same way.

I feel just as I did when I was 16 defending myself and my peers against stereotyping teenagers in an essay I wrote then. Now I am agreeing with what you say about stereotyping those of us over a certain age, which we cannot aggree is 55, 60, 65 or the age of my aunt who is 106. So the problem is lumping everyone together and painting them with the broad brush.

I too like the word 'crone' for women who have earned the right to be called "women". Being female is not under our control, being a woman requires work!

Crones in my mind have been tested by life and can still enjoy a sunrise; have been through dark trials of the soul and can still smile at the wonders of nature; have been brought to their spiritual knees by life and yet can still hold onto hope for the future.

Amen, Georjina!

"Being female is not under our control, being a woman requires work!"

Perhaps this is why I hate to hear people refer to men and women as "males" and "females." As if they were animals.

I strongly believe that the language we use to describe old is of vital importance, just as is letting others know when the language -- verbal, written, visual -- they use is not appropriate, as is done so well on this blog.

The list of words synonymous with "old" you provide is appalling and must be readjusted.

I certainly agree the stereotyping of individuals does much to perpetuate the false perceptions one group develops toward another -- including what "old" means.

I very much dislike being called "young lady" by clerks etc in grocery stores or other places when it is evident that I am way past 60 years of age but I just let it pass because I don't have a good retort yet.


In response to Chancy's question (what do we say when the store clerk calls us 'young lady'?) I really like this suggestion from the Old
Women's Project

website. 'You can look back at them, preferably with no trace of hostility or sarcasm, and ask with genuine puzzlement, “What do you mean?” The beauty of this response to an ageist remark is that the burden is no longer on you to explain why what they said is offensive. It does not make you “feisty” or “crotchety” or “cranky.” It places the burden squarely on them to look at what they just said and figure out why they said it. It can make them squirm at what they just said the way you are squirming at what they just said. And it’s more educational than any mini-lecture on ageism you might deliver.'

Well, am I happy to find myself here! I've been fighting my corner for being allowed and acknowledged to be just simply 'old', and as such to be equally valued with all other ages, and I started blogging with that in mind. You already have my blog listed as an elderblogger under Not Dead Yet!, though I'm not sure how I got there, as this is my first visit.

True, Shakespeare didn't do the old any favours, but then being old in his time was a different game from what it is now, I suppose. [Do you think his "pouch on side" was a colostomy bag, by the way?! Somebody should write an imaginary blog for Shakespeare.]

My pet hates in the cutesy category, alongside "young lady", are "young at heart" and "80 years young". Living for nearly 80 years has been hard work, and I like to think I have more heart now than I had when I was 20.

Regarding Chancy's question about how to handle the store clerk (inevitably a man) who refers to her as "young lady": Why not take the opportunity to educate? My response is a friendly and smiling: "I'm certain that your intentions are good, but a better term for addressing an older woman is ma'm. I think you'll find it's usually appreciated by someone my age." This is usually well received. Of course, I live in L.A., so many older women I know would respond more favorably to being called "sweetie/baby/darling!"

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