The other night I was at the meeting of a non-profit that works with refugees that have recently come to Chicago. The room contained about three people in their 20s, maybe three people in their 30s and three of us who were over 45. One of the young women in her 20s was talking about how to format a publication and mentioned that we should keep the font large "so it can be read by people who are..."At this point she stumbled for words.
The man who looked like he was in his 60s said, "Were you about to say 'older?' Are you saying that older people have trouble reading?"
The young woman looked uncomfortable, "Well, no. I mean just in general maybe people have trouble -- "
The man smiled and watched her for a moment before he said, "No, it's true. People have more problems with our eyes when we get older."
He did this a second time a little later, seeming to take affront to the word "older." Both times he changed his criticism into a joke, but he was making the young woman visibly uncomfortable. I finally spoke up.
"Yes, 'old.' There's nothing wrong with the word 'old,'" I said, glancing at the man and then addressing the woman. "He's old, I'm old, we're old. No problem!"
When I looked back at the old guy, he didn't say anything, but he stopped making cracks about the word "old."
Why do people in their 50s and 60s have so much trouble with the word "old?" Recent news articles report that people over the age of 55 don't even want to be called "mature." It didn't use to be this way. People who are now in their 70s and 80s accepted words like "seniors" and "elderly" with grace twenty years ago. It's specifically Baby Boomers who seem to reject the fact of their own aging.
I find this aversion to one's own age annoying. How can someone who's so insecure about turning 60 have the confidence to walk around with jet black (or bright red or deep blond) hair that doesn't match their wrinkles at all? I hope Generation X doesn't follow the Boomers' vain, delusional trend of wearing their forever-young desperation on their brightly colored sleeves.
Or maybe it's just that Americans have equated youth with health, and aging with lack of health. If "old" simply means "unhealthy," then of course everyone wants to avoid being old. But if we're changing the language and "old" becomes a term we apply only to the unhealthy, then how do we describe healthy old people?
Maybe we can just use age ranges. Instead of senior centers we'll have people-over-the-age-of-65 centers. If finding an inoffensive adjective is too hard (and it seems to be), we'll have to stay clinical and numbers-centered. But my preference is to force Baby Boomers to learn that being old is perfectly fine and can have positive as well as negative connotations. I want to slap some sense into them and say, "There's nothing wrong with being old! It doesn't make you a worse human being. Get over it!" It's what I wanted to do with that man in the meeting. I wanted to look him in the eye and tell him, "'Say it after me: I am old. Say it!'"