The Language of Aging

by Dr. Shelly Finn

When Cynthia Andrews, Homage’s Senior Marketing and Communication Manager, approached me about writing a column on aging, I was surprised. Sure, in my decades of Internal Medicine practice, I worked with many older adults, but I do not consider myself old. Yes, my right knee aches, and I do wear reading glasses. Communications from my college alma mater and charitable organizations now suggest I include them in estate planning. Over the past three months, my now adult and independent children reiterated suggestions about sheltering in place, concerned my husband and I would be at risk for complications if we contracted COVID-19.  I admit I feel a tinge of anxiety when I review the Washington State Department of Health COVID-19 website. My husband and I are both 59 years old, so we are now classified in the 40-59 age group.  In less than one year, we will advance to the statistician’s 60-79 age cohort where, on average, outcomes are not as favorable. Still, I do not feel old. When does “old age” begin? Why do most of us cringe when we are referred to as old?

The definition of old age is clearly in the eye of the beholder. A 2016 Marist poll asked American adults at what age people become “old”.

  • On average, respondents under 30 thought 60-year-olds were old
  • Those aged 30-49 said old age begins at 69
  • People aged 50-64 believed old age begins at 72
  • Adults 65 or older thought old age begins at 74

Eighty percent of adults aged 55 and older have at least one chronic medical condition. Yet as individuals, we tend to see effects of aging as something happening to others, not to ourselves. Thirty-five percent of respondents aged 75 and older stated they themselves did not feel “old.” 

In his January 27, 2020 article in The Atlantic, “When Does Someone Become Old?”, Joe Pinsker described difficulties journalists face in finding language for aging that older generations support. While the words “senior” or “senior citizen” were once popular, for many now those words imply weakness or obsolescence. Some cultures have respectfully used the word “elder” to refer to older individuals with experience and wisdom, yet many find the word “elderly” pejorative. Among Pinsker’s informal poll of journalist colleagues, most found the “older adults” to be the most accepted term. Although I like to think of myself as middle aged, I am OK with the term “older adult”. Let’s face it: how many 118-year-olds have I known? 

Over the past three months, most of us have learned a wealth of new things. We have learned Zoom conferencing, physical distancing, and how to effectively wash our hands.  We have learned that people and activities we had taken for granted are more important to us that we had realized. Many of us, myself included, have learned we do not understand racism and its effects on our friends and communities. If we are lucky and blessed with long lives, we will also learn how to cope with aging, both in terms of preventing disability, but also how to use available tools and services to live well as changes occur.  I feel fortunate to have Homage’s talented and passionate experts nearby as I entered my own older adulthood.

Dr. Shelly Finn is the a member of the Homage Board of Directors.

Share this article to social media: