Chapter 32: War of the Words

The language of age and the dynamics of disrespect.

“Every man would live long,
but no one would be old”
—Jonathan Swift

I like chocolate frosties, the malty, soft ice cream you get in a cup at Wendy’s, the burger chain. So last summer, when they ran a promotion, a small for a dollar, I decided to take advantage of it and stopped at an outlet near the airport one afternoon. When the teen serving brought me my treat, though, he asked for $1.69. “Hey,” I said, “what about the dollar special?” “Oh,” he laughed, “that was just a summer deal. It’s September now.” “Gosh,” I said, “that’s too bad,” evidently looking very disappointed. “In that case, please give me the medium, which gets you twice as much for only 20 cents more.” But by now, he was looking at me differently. “Know what?” he said. “How about I give you the seniors discount?” Caught short by this first ever occasion of being called senior, I laughed out loud, thinking, “Senior!? Moi?! Ha!” Was I not the guy the Globe and Mail had once called “the hippest man in Canada?” Senior!? Oh, the indignity! Or was the kid just being nice, perhaps even expressing respect? Either way, I pocketed the 17 cent saving with a shrug, thanked him for mentioning it (many businesses offer such discounts, but you have to ask for them) and thoroughly enjoyed my dollar and fifty-two cent small.

Later, when I realized the deeper point of the exchange, I wasn’t offended. I thought it was funny. But I also realized I had stumbled over the insidious language of Age epitomized, in this case, by the problem word “senior.” Gerontologist Dee Wadsworth says that she uses the phrase “older adult” as opposed to “senior” in her practice because when boomers hear the word “seniors,” they think someone is referring to their parents. Margaret Wente might have put it best in the Feb. 9 issue of her Globe and Mail column (“Why 65 Isn’t 60”) when she wrote that, while the very thought of a seniors discount or of a seniors day is “undeniably depressing, more depressing still is that people think you are eligible for it.”

The experience of aging as portrayed in our culture has not generally been positive, let alone enjoyable. So, from the moment I decided to launch this new Movement for a Society Moving into Older Age, I knew that a big part of the challenge lay in language, because so many of the words and phrases used popularly to describe aging are overtly negative or subtly condescending or digs disguised as compliments. “Old” is the first one; and the related words “mature,” “older,” “senior,” “elder” and such make people nervous.

I ran “mature” past a friend. He winced and said, “I’d rather be called a geezer.” At least “geezer” has some oomph; it denotes power (if cranky) and humour, both of which “mature” lacks. “Senior” is less pompous than “mature” but is somehow bland and ineffectual. “Elder” is strangely better than the off-putting “elderly” as it denotes wisdom. A hundred years ago, let alone a thousand, these categories wouldn’t have been needed; you were old for a short time, as early as 40 or 50, and then you died. But today we live long enough that, like black civil rights activists and feminists before us, we need to either codify new positive language or rehabilitate old words to describe ourselves. Sylvia Stead, public editor at the Globe and Mail wrote recently in a piece about that paper’s style and standards practices, “Everybody deserves to be called what they want to be called.” The trouble with our demo is that we haven’t decided yet what we want to be called. But we know what we don’t want to be called.

Here, based on a loose survey round the office, are the Top Four cringe-worthy pet peeves for negative stereotyping:

1. “DEAR” Maybe the most ubiquitous and insidious verbal ageism of all. In the April 2009 issue of Zoomer, Rona Maynard wrote a story titled “Don’t Call Me Dear!” in which she describes a friend of hers, an amateur pilot and award-winning entrepreneur of a certain age, who exploded when a waiter in a restaurant addressed her with the “D-word.” When the waiter, chastened, brought the bill, it included a personal message: “Thanks, Babe.” Maynard’s friend left a large tip.

2. “WE” As in “And how are we today?” This is the Royal We turned into the Infantile We, directed at you by a younger someone who’s trying to be oh-so-helpful.

3. “TWILIGHT YEARS” Could any phrase be more patronizing? Besides, twilight is not necessarily a happy time. “As only New Yorkers know,” said Dorothy Parker, “if you can get through the twilight, you’ll live through the night.” The only phrase that approaches it for bleakness is “Bucket List,” which reduces to the status of debris the things you’ve not yet managed to do and have now to cram into your sad few remaining days on earth.

4. “AGING BABY BOOMERS” The same way that “Young Professionals” implies that the old can’t be professionals, “Aging Baby Boomers” implies that only the older age. Babies are aging, teenagers are aging, everyone is aging. To emphasize the adjective next to boomers is to use it as a synonym for decline.

In institutional settings, “dear” and “we” have been identified by gerontologists as “elderspeak”: “[Elderspeak is] speaking unusually slowly, using a restricted vocabulary, simplified syntax and exaggerated prosody [sing-song speech].” In other words, speaking the way you might to an infant or to a newly arrived immigrant who spoke no English. The assumption underlying elderspeak is that all people, once they’re “old,” are cognitively impaired. Studies have shown that elderspeak can have a negative impact on both the physical and mental health of the people at which it’s directed. Effectively, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are not just what we eat, it seems; we are also what we are called.

You would think that our gang would push back against condescension of this kind, but studies also show that of all the victims of patronizing speech, older people are the least likely to protest, at least publicly. This is probably because we’re more polite and because the offence is considered to be harmless by society at large. A review that appeared last year in the Winnipeg Free Press of the movie Cloudburst, about an aging gay couple, carried a headline that sort of says it all: “Film treats lesbians with respect but patronizes seniors.” Or we may have become inured to ageist condescension because so much of it comes in the form of Asteism.

A friend of mine, a man in his late 60s who regularly goes on demanding cycling holidays in Europe and Central America, says he’s tired of other younger cyclists telling him what an “inspiration” he is. “I don’t want to be an inspiration,” he says. “I just want to ride my bicycle.”

Other classic backhanded ageist compliments include:

“You look great for your age.”
“He/she is remarkably with it for a man/woman of his/her age.”
“I only hope I can skate/run/dance like that when I’m your age.”

Such comments may seem flattering, but they’re actually different ways of saying, “You’re lucky you’re still alive.” Perhaps it’s time we push back; time we ended the gentleman’s agreement not to rock the boat when people put us down. In some places, the tide is already turning, and the image of the old inflicted by negative speech and image is being turned on its head. One of the signature TV ads that debuted at this year’s Super Bowl, that of Taco Bell, portrays a group of nursing home residents escaping “custody” at night and embarking on a bacchanal that would put spring break to shame. Whatever these octogenarian desperados are, it’s not “mature” or “elderly,” and they’re certainly not “acting their age.”

That’s why I came up with “Zoomer” (boomer with zip/Znaimer + boomer); a word that connotes optimism and drive, a word that epitomizes vitality in age, a word with which people happily identify and has as much to do with attitude as chronology.

But that doesn’t solve the initial problem of naming the various age-groups that make up the large demographic I want to encompass under Zoomerhood. Because, as there’s been no social consensus on the points of inflection or their names, in 2008, one of my first tries at reform for advertisers and sociologists looked like this: 45-65: boomer; 65-85: senior; 85-100: elder; 100-plus: immortal

After discussing all this with colleagues, I came to the conclusion that my first divisions were too broad on one hand and too language-loaded on the other. But when we tried to be more precise and language-neutral, we kept ending up with categories that were either dull or confusing or both. For example: 45-55: early middle; 55-65: late middle; 65-75: young old; 75-90: middle old; 90-100: old old; 100-110: centenarian; 110-plus: super centenarian.

See what I mean? Words can lift us up, or they can bring us down. The words we choose or have to choose from convey our thoughts and attitudes even while influencing them.

More than just a new taxonomy, we need a whole new range of language to articulate the increasingly complex experience that aging now encompasses. After all, language is a living, evolving thing that should embrace all the changes that occur in our lifetimes. Maybe you have suggestions? If so, please mail or e-mail me with them. I welcome ideas for new words to describe us in all our aspects and ages, words with the power of “geezer” and “crone” but with, perhaps, a bit more nobility. If the Inuit have 100 different terms for all the different kinds of snow, we can at least use a few more to describe our situation. Just bear in mind: we aren’t “dear” and we aren’t “we.”

“Senior”? Possibly, but only if it’s accompanied by a discount.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.