May 26, 2019

What Does "Elder" Mean?


Recently, I read a new book that gave me an idea for this post. Elderhood,  Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson addresses many of the concepts, limitations, and opportunities this time of life offers. She got me thinking about how we deal with the concept of what an elder is, what place an elder holds in society, and do we think of ourselves this way?

In many parts of the world, elder is a revered title. It is granted to someone of a certain age who has lived long enough to gain some wisdom and perspective. That person is consulted about important decisions and looked to for wise counsel. India is a good example of a place where age is a positive. While China used to be a country where age was judged in a positive light, as that society becomes more Westernized the place that elders hold has changed.

In America older people were considered important to a community's stability into the early part of the 20th century. While older people, men most often, retained their grasp on power as they aged, things were shifting. During the roaring twenties and particularly after World War II, the focus shifted toward the young. Today, a look at most advertising makes it clear: younger sells. Companies direct almost all their resources to capturing the minds and hearts of those 18-44. 

So, where does that leave those of us who may struggle to remember our 30's? What are we and where do we fit? What name do we call ourselves or those at our stage of life? There have been some attempts, mostly by younger people, to figure out what to call us: senior citizens, the elderly, geriatrics, oldsters, silver eagles (!), geezers, wrinklies (very British), old people...well, you get the idea. These terms are not very positive, some are downright offensive.

I admit that I struggle to come up with a term that describes where I am in life at the moment. I hate "Baby Boomer" since it often has negative connotations. Senior citizen may have fit my parent's or grandparent's generations, but not mine. The elderly isn't it either.

But, a shortened version of elderly has some possibilities: elder has a better feel to it. As I noted above, in the past elder has had a positive meaning. I don't believe the word has developed any negative connotations. Rather, it has just fallen into disuse. 

More importantly, what should elder imply? I suggest it says several things that I would be happy to have associated with me:

1) I have survived to an age that was unheard of even 100 years ago. I remain in control of all my faculties and personality.

2) I have lived long enough to learn from my mistakes, profit from my experiences, and realize I still know very little.

3) I am part of an economic powerhouse, even if Madison Ave is slow to recognize me. Those 60+ control the bulk of this country's financial resources. As a group we control over 1 trillion in spending each year. 

4) I have the free time to invest my skills and my interests in my community. I am part of the largest age group that supports charities of all sorts.

5) I remain a powerful force in the political process. Folks 65 + equal 15% of the American population. Within 30 years that percentage will almost double. My opinions and organizational skills make me important. 


6) I can have a huge impact on those two generations younger than I, as a tutor, mentor, or simply someone who listens and cares. As my grandchildren go, so goes our future.



OK, so elder it is. I can live with "senior," too, as long as you don't tack on the word, citizen. Just show me the respect I have earned and accept me as a fellow human being who still has a lot to offer. Actually, I don't really need any type of label, but we are a society that thrives on them, so I have to find one I can embrace.

By the way, I turned 70 a few weeks ago, so this is me, smack dab in my elder life!

30 comments:

  1. I know your post is really about labels for us more mature types (to me I don't care what I'm called) but I saw one thing in your post that I see over and over that just isn't true: "I have survived to an age that was unheard of even 100 years ago."

    While medical advancements have improved many aspects of healthcare, the assumption that human life span has increased dramatically over centuries or millennia is misleading.

    Overall life expectancy, which is the statistic reflected in the news reports we see, hasn’t increased so much because we’re living far longer than we used to as a species. It’s increased because more of us, as individuals, are making it that far. The life span of humans – opposed to life expectancy, which is a statistical construct – hasn’t really changed much at all.

    In the 1st Century, Pliny devoted an entire chapter of The Natural History to people who lived longest. Among them he lists the consul M Valerius Corvinos (100 years), Cicero’s wife Terentia (103), a woman named Clodia (115 – and who had 15 children along the way), and the actress Lucceia who performed on stage at 100 years old.

    Societies can have low average life expectancy, because of, say, pregnant women, and children who die, and still have people to live to 80 and 90 at the same time. This averaging-out, however, is why it’s commonly said that ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, lived to just 30 or 35. The fact of the matter is, even in ancient times, if you make to 60 you have a good chance of surviving another decade or two and that hasn't changed.

    Walk around any old cemetery as I did recently in Iceland. There are many tombstones going back a century or two of people of living into their 80s and beyond. Of course there are also the tombstones of children which is what brings down the statistical average life expectancy. Are we actually living longer as a species? Not really.

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    1. To put it in a context that people might be better able to relate to: U.S. Founding Fathers that lived into their nineties includes: Paine Wingate who died at age 98, Charles Carroll of Carrollton who died at age 95, Charles Thomson who died at 94, William Samuel Johnson who died at 92 and John Adams who died at 90. Among those who lived into their eighties were: Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Whittmore, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Armstrong Jr., Hugh Williamson, and George Wythe.

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    2. This seems like a semantic dispute. The life expectancy of a white male born in 1900 was 47. Today it is 78.7. Sure, some people live to to be much older, but too many die much too young, also.

      To me life expectancy is showing an average of the age someone should achieve. The people you listed are exceptions to the norm and those who make up the upper side of the average. Mozart, a contemporary of the Founding Fathers, died at 35.

      To be more precise, I could have said, "I have survived to an age that was way above average even 100 years ago."

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    3. Sorry Bob, I didn't mean to cause a dispute no matter how minor.

      As I age I recall that Bill Bryson, my favourite author, wrote a few years ago: "It was with great dismay that I realized I am now too old for early onset anything. Any dementia I get now will be right on time."

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    4. Yea, that average thing does get way skewed. There is a difference between average age and expectancy. Many people lived to be much older, it was the deaths of the children and young people due to disease and the death of women in childbirth that skewed the age much more than any thing else. In other words,for every kid that died at birth there was someone who lived to 70. The difference today is that fewer people die at birth. And our current lifestyle expectanc is suppose to become lower in the second half of this century-due to lifestyle issues like obesity and diabetes.

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    5. Those life expectancy figures are misleading because they refer to life expectancy at birth. What has changed is not so much adult lifespans as the chance of surviving to adulthood. I'm pretty sure Mozart's death at 35 was exceptional in his time.
      I very much like the term elder, for the same reasons you do.

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    6. Someone (or multiple people) call me to task whenever I use any reference to life expectancy or longevity or average. I should have learned by now to simply skip any of those references. Whatever you call it someone born in 2019 will likely live longer than someone born in 1919. We'll leave it at that.

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  2. I loved this post! I’m ok with senior citizen, but elder is much better, as it suggests the wisdom of age. In our deeply ageist society it would be hard to establish it, but I’ll do my bit to try!

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    1. Thanks, SMS. As the percentage of "elders" increases in American society maybe we will have an easier time getting our due!

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  3. I love your list of things being an 'elder' implies.

    I've never gotten hung up in the what-to-call-us debate that I know is swirling out there and I have probably called myself every label you've mentioned up above. But I think I'll try to do better and adopt the 'elder' label.

    I was sad to see you say you hate the term 'Baby Boomers.' I'm not one (born a year of two before them) but it's only been in the past five years (?) that some Millenniums have tried to paint them as the most evil generation under that sun. Political message boards have posts like that comment we all get on our blogs from time to time and when I see them I've wondered if they are Russians trying to sow discourse and fear. All generations are born into a set of circumstances that were not of their making. To me, if we stop using the term 'Baby Boomers' we are buying into the negativity being sold about them. Aside from that, the stereotyping of whole segments of society based on race, age or sex rubs me the wrong way right out of the gate. We are people, not cookies stamped out with a cutter.

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    1. You are right: the term Baby Boomers has taken on negative connotations to many. But, I also don't like it simply because it has no reference to our value.

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  4. I like all of the things you say the word "elder" implies. However, even though I too recently turned 70, I still think that elders, senior citizens, geezers and the like are all several years older than I am!

    As a postscript ... the people who run B's church are all called "elders," no matter what their age, b/c they presumably embody all of the qualities you suggest.

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    1. Yes, there are religious uses of the "elders" term that have nothing to do with age. But, in that context, it is supposed to imply wisdom and the ability to guide a religious organization....another vote for the benefit of being elder!

      I didn't think of myself that way until my 70th birthday. I still don't particularly like labels, but if I have to be known as something, elder would be my choice, though just plain Bob is also OK.

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  5. just use “retired”. It seems to fit the best and is probably the least derogatory. It may not be accurate as some are still working but better than most others. I am totally against using Elders” as I’m of the opinion that this should be reserved for those who truly are those who truly fit the criteria of “with age comes wisdom”. There are way too many of us of the older generations for whom age has come but wisdom is sorely lacking. To my mind there are very few “Elders” in this society- mostly just old cranky people with little wisdom worth sharing. I’m 71 and I find few people around me I consider wise.

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    1. Yes, 'retired' works well in many conditions. But, when those of a certain age are referred to in the media, 'retired' is still a term that links our worth or position with what we did before and are not doing now. I hope my value to my family and my community is more than just that I no longer get a regular paycheck!

      I certainly agree that there are way too many cranky older folks who aren't using what they have learned in any positive sense. Maybe I should write a post about that and see if we can come up with ways to help tap the wisdom that is buried under that crankiness.

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    2. "Retired" also embeds the word "tired" and has always reminded me of "retread"! Viva Elderhood!

      If the people around you are lacking wisdom and perspective, find some new friends...

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  6. Happy belated birthday, Bob! It comes on a very weird day for me. I and some good friends all showed up for the 70th birthday party of a good friends of ours, all bearing gifts and food and were greeted at the door by his stunned partner who told us he had died in the previous days. We had all be complaining among ourselves about how our friend had failed to return phone calls or texts and how unlike it was of him. Very strange feeling when one expects to celebrate a 70th and instead starts the grieving process together. We were glad that we were together however, and with his partner too, still in shock. I'm glad you're healthy and happy on your 70th!

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    1. Thanks, Lynn, but I am sorry for the loss of your friend and the impact that had on all. Life is a gift every day so make the most of it. Love everyone and only make positive waves!

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  7. I get what ddavidson says about life span vs life expectancy. There were, and still are, many challenges to life span, i.e. disease, war, accidents, medical care, environmental risks, etc. This post is timely. My sister and I just had a conversation this morning about the wide range of normal when it comes to ageing. Our 86 yr old mother is better than some who are younger but not as good as others who are older than her. It is definitely not one-size-fits-all. I liken it to an earlier developmental stage - some kids are walking when they are 8 months old; some aren't walking until they're 18 months old - a wide range of normal. Indigenous cultures here in Alberta recognize Elders and age isn't the only determinant of being bestowed that recognition.

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    1. That is an interesting point about the First Nations people of your country: age is not the only requirement to be treated as someone with something to contribute.

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  8. Honestly, I refuse to feel less than when I'm still kicking. I don't like the labels and prefer to stay on top of what styles are today. It's a female thing, I know, but staying current in mind and body, fashion and fun, helps me feel alive.
    b

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    1. I think you can be current in every way possible but still be an "elder" in terms of wisdom and experience you can share.

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  9. It's funny. I have no problem considering myself a senior at 67, but I would consider my parents (were they living) or inlaws to be elders. But then I look at m gals group or church group and we're all between 65 and some are eighty five and I just know they would hate having a different label than I do. Nevertheless, elder for me implies a lack of physical abilities, maybe?

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    1. For me, elderly would carry connotation of limits, but not elder.

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  10. I describe myself as "older". It's really the same as "elder" but "elder" seems older than "older"!
    I recently came across a cool video on the Australian Human Rights Commission website called "Power of Oldness". Toward the end of the video, they say "Oldness, it's everywhere. And if you're lucky, it can happen to you."

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    1. I like the attitude of the video. Good for them.

      You may be right: elder does sound older than older.

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  11. My daughter frequently reminds me that I'm "elderly"! Hmmm. I like the term elder. Also within a family context, I like matriarch.

    Did I miss your birthday?! My elderly brain can't remember if I wished you a happy day. If I did miss it, then I apologize and I hope you had a wonderful day. My daughter also says I have the memory of a gnat -- so true. Thankfully, she says these things to me with great affection.

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    1. Well, the world has tried patriarchal system for quite a long time, to nothing but problems. Let's all go with matriarchal for a while.

      I don't really keep track but I know you always wish me well, so if you missed a high five on May 10th, I forgive you!

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  12. I’m firmly in denial. Getting older - who, me? Nope. But I sure seem to be surrounded by a lot of old folks these days.

    Jude

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    1. They are everywhere, aren't they! Heavens, I even live with one.

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