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!