Making an elderberry whine
A month ago, I came home to find my buffed-up, cross-trained 40ish neighbor and his son shoveling a foot of snow off my double-wide glacier of a driveway. I whipped out my electric shovel, helped finish my driveway, then helped them clear their snowplow-buried sidewalks. Laughing, my neighbor commented, “I thought I was helping my elderly neighbor, but here she is helping me!”
I adore my neighbor. I know he meant well. But that word — elderly — shocked me. A month later, I’m still chewing on it.
In my book, anyone who skis black diamond runs (as I do) is not elderly. But the medical definition is “anyone over 65.” That would make it official…
Then again, I’m cranky and iconoclastic. When Gen-Y professionals at an AARP conference upbraided me and two over-65 friends for “ageist language,” I bridled, thinking, “Grrr. I’ll call myself anything I (bleep)-well want!”
AARP later sent us a pamphlet on “offensive” terms. “Elderly” makes their list, along with “senior.” Amusingly enough, a debate about “elderly” has been going on since roughly the time I was born. While researching, I found a 2013 NPR story about this “age-old problem.” It referenced a 1953 flap among editors at the Washington Post!
Asking around online, I found the debate left younger friends scratching their heads. Lily Surls asked, “Why is the term ‘elderly’ upsetting? Some elderly people are very healthy and lead very active lives. I’m just curious, because it seems a bit like someone saying ‘you throw/play/fight like a girl’. That would be upsetting to someone who thinks of girls as weak, but not to somebody that has a lot of strong girls come to mind. There are plenty of elderly folks who are strong, vigorous and sharp, so I’m curious why you don’t feel the term fits you?”
Trinity Stebleton, a young mom to a toddler, thinks it doesn’t fit. “Um… I definitely wouldn’t connect that term with you.”
Another local mom and working realtor, Kim McKinley, said, “I wouldn’t use the term ‘elderly’ for anyone on Facebook — especially not you!”
Absurd,” my cute, frisky, retired friend Diane Witt pronounced. “You are not elderly, whatever that’s supposed to mean. That word should be banished in polite company.”
I have plenty of peers in my cranky-pants camp. Glenda Leatherman snorted, “Age-ism, pure and simple.” Susan Walls thinks both “elderly” and “senior” are “derogatory.” Francey Liefert echoed my own views, saying that she’s “proud to be an elder” because it “connotes wisdom and asks for respect” while elderly “connotes frailty and incompetency in our culture.”
Mulling things over, I found that I consider my 89-year-old husband elderly, but exempt my 68-year-old self. Wondering if he’d agree, I asked Mason, “Do you consider yourself elderly?”
“What about me?”
“Well, I still have most of my marbles, but I’m not running the 100-yard dash anymore.”
Despite medicine’s 65-plus designation, I don’t consider the term “elderly” necessarily age-based. Mason has a mended spine, trouble walking and mild, short-term memory issues. He gives himself a pass congitively, but fails the physical. (In my book, if you’re 45 and putting on your ski boots qualifies as aerobic exercise, you’re elderly. But I wouldn’t say so out loud.)
My former minster, the Unitarian-Universalist Reverend Gretchen Haley, has a sage view of this debate: “I guess it depends what you assume being an ‘elder’ means. We have (ageist) cultural assumptions about the later stage of life. I see how much variety there is in people’s 70s, 80s, 90s.
I just tend not to think of being older, elderly, senior… whatever the term … as meaning anything other than the last third of life.”
Gretchen’s measured comments reminded me that Hinduism divides our lives into four stages: the student, the householder, the retired (vanaprastha) and the renunciate (sannyasa). My peers and I are vanaprastha: a stage characterized by the birth of grandchildren, gradually transitioning responsibilities to the next generation, and emphasis on community service and spiritual pursuits. Whether we’re called seniors, sages, silver foxes, or golden oldies, I think we’re all grateful to be given the opportunity to grow old. We’ve known fellow travelers who were denied that privilege.
But like most of my boomer friends, I’m nowhere near sannyasa, the Hindu stage of complete worldly renunciation. So what to call us? We’re divided on “senior” and most dislike “elder.”
Most of us are okay with “boomer” (although it’s sometimes a putdown) and pretty much everyone likes the term “elder.”
Personally, I’m opting for what my peer Diane Witt wittily suggested: “I want to be an elderberry.”
“That’s an elder who’s still juicy, right?” I asked.
“Juicy and extremely nutritious,” she replied.
Alrighty, then! Just consider this column my elderberry whine.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.
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