I had my knuckles rapped this week by someone who took against my use of the word “elderly”. Quite rightly – from his perspective – he felt it was perjorative, and instead thought I should say “older” when referring to people of a certain vintage.
Was it ever thus. I have struggled with the terminology for years. Seniors, ageing, later life, older, silvers, the list goes on. It is certainly never my intention to offend anyone. In my defence words such as older are often worse, acting instead as verbal figleaf hiding what someone really means to say.
The twilight years
I took my direction about the language of age from my elderly parents. For many years Dad most certainly wasn’t and refused to be an old man or to refer to himself in his “twilight years” or whatever distracting expression was de jour. Eventually in his own words he became an elderly man – importantly, we both knew what that meant. A bit wibbly wobbly on his pins, endlessly in the GP surgery for something or other, worried about driving, the tv turned up at full volume etc.
Age does not diminish anyone
For me “elderly” is a warmer, more affectionate term than the other rather bland and frankly meaningless labels. I think of my Dad as an elderly man, the 85 years of life he had behind him, and the slightly less robust state he found himself in. What diminished him wasn’t the label of age, but the wear and tear of the years. I think of my Mum as a beautiful, wrinkly old woman with her with her lovely gnarly hands and her twinkly eyes. Age didn’t diminish her either, but the health issues she faced. Elderly. They were.
Pensioners, OAPs, Silvers....take your pick
A friend of mine refers to her parents as The Pensioners. It makes everyone – including them – laugh, and it’s always said with such warmth and love, conjuring up a wonderful image of them together, which I know is spot on.
Here's to you Mrs Robinson
Of course this is not everyone’s lot in later years/later life/the sunset years etc. As I saw photos of Dame Helen Mirren at Paris fashion week, all the distracting language about her and her age swirled around as she sashayed down the catwalk. Is she an older person? She’s definitely an older woman, which takes you splendidly down the Mrs Robinson route (or actually just the Helen Mirren route); but it also sends her so very wrongly down the road of vanilla, bland “older” which completely belies her fabulous state of being. At her age.
All the platitudes about age being a number, age doesn’t define you etc have a certain truth. But I worry that we are drowning in a language of distraction and political correctness which does the very thing we’re so anxiously trying to avoid.
I don’t have an answer. But somehow we need to stop reducing the beauty of ageing – however ugly it gets – with language designed to distract from the obvious, sucking the colour and life out of those who have most surely had a life well lived.
Annabel James is founder of Age Space. Her views, and her language, are her own.