What’s in a name
Most people in their 60s, 70s and older still don’t think of themselves as “old.”
Old is that lady who lives down the road or that man who walks past the house with his walking stick each day. Old is always just a few years older than we are. We often refer to old people in the third person, old means “them” not “us” in our minds and our conversations. We keep an entire stage of life at arm’s length. By failing to identify with “old,” the story about old people becomes typecast as a sad story of loss and decline.
The problem is that people just don’t want to accept that they are getting older. Sometimes, when we give out leaflets promoting the work of Age Concern Liverpool & Sefton, people snarl at us, “Damn cheek – do you think I’m old”. Often this is said by someone in their late 60’s and yet the charity provides services to people who are as young as 50. Most people say that they don’t want to grow old, but they also want to live a long time.
But as we have learned from discussions about gender and race language matters. We at Age Concern Liverpool & Sefton don’t want to get drawn into a battle over political correctness, but how we refer to older people dictates how we consider ageing and defines how we treat older people or embrace getting older ourselves.
For many years, we have adopted the term “older person”. It seemed a good option as it doesn’t imply any particular age; just that we are older than some other people. Far better than the derogatory terms like wrinklies, geriatrics, old biddies and codgers.
Recently we have come across another option which we think is also quite good in a poetic kind of way. It was coined by an American woman called Maureen Conners, who works in fashion technology. She uses the word “perennials” to refer to older customers.
The symbolism of this term could just be perfect. “Perennials” makes it clear that we’re still here; blossoming again and again. It also suggests a new model of life in which people engage and take breaks, making new starts repeatedly. Perennials aren’t guaranteed to blossom year after year, but given proper conditions, good soil and nutrients, they can go on for decades. It’s aspirational.
So the next time you want a nicer way to describe older people, perhaps think of perennials. It marks a shift away from the fear of growing old and toward embracing living long but continuing to grow.