“Most people don’t grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.” ~Maya Angelou
Wearing out, crumbling, declining, fading, waning, stale. These are just a few of the synonyms for aging on Thesaurus.com. On a slightly more positive note, though, the word-finder lists maturing, developing, mellowing and getting on.
I guess you can’t argue with the English vernacular, but there are people and companies out there that are trying to put a more positive spin on the twilight years. And they’re not calling them the twilight years.
Just days ago, the beauty publishing giant Allure Magazine declared it would no longer use the term “anti-aging,” as they believe among other things, it suggests, “…looking at our life as a hill that we start rolling uncontrollably down past 35.”
“Anti-ageing has been a beauty byword since the 1980s, when it was dreamed up by an advertising exec to sell products to older women,” says Alyson Walsh in her blog for The Guardian. “Is It Time To Ditch The Term ‘Anti-Ageing’?”
Allure’s announcement comes a month after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said it would begin cracking down on advertisements that stereotype gender roles and almost a decade after the ASA started banning ads containing the term. The United Kingdom’s independent regulator for all media advertising, said that ads that mock people for not conforming to traditional gender types or reinforce gender roles had “costs for individuals, the economy and society.” The decision will result in new rules from the organization next year.
It makes sense that advertisers don’t want to make seniors feel bad about their age. The market stands to make bank on senior purchasing now and for the foreseeable future. The number of people over the age of 65 is projected to increase to 72 million—over 20% of the U.S. population—by 2030 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the Internet is riddled with senior marketing solutions and scholarly articles on elderly consumer behavior.
Jane Cunningham, founder of the site britishbeautyblogger.com, uses the terms ‘age inclusive’ and ‘for older skin’ when talking about products she would recommend for women over 50, Walsh writes, regularly taking a stand against an industry that consistently champions youth by promoting a more inclusive approach. “Treating age as something that needs ‘curing’ is pointlessly demoralizing for anyone over 30,” Cunningham points out.
Dove, Olay, L’Oreal and Vichy have all coined new phrases for their products in lieu of anti-aging, including Pro Age, Age-Defying, Age Perfect and Slow Age, respectively.
“Language matters, and so does representation – with older models trending and age-shaming terminology being questioned, it feels like things are improving for women over-50, if only a little,” Walsh writes. “Admittedly, it’s not a walk in the park, but at 53, I’m growing-in my grey hair, embracing my wrinkles and wearing what I please. I know I don’t look 35, but I’m fine with that. I’ve found that most women of my age and beyond are interested in looking good rather than looking younger; and that it’s not about age, it’s about mindset.”
That mindset is being manipulated in the most positive sense in everything from products to pastimes. In what seems like the age of offensiveness and offendedness, changing the language about aging might, in fact, be the one campaign everyone can get behind. After all, we’re all in the aging boat.
And we can all agree that language matters. Considering how we talk about aging and how we refer to older folks really isn’t new, just slow growing, as evidenced by Marianne Kilkenny’s November 2014 article, “How Names Influence Perception: Community and Aging.”
Kilkenny founded Women for Living in Community, an online source in a network of individuals, families, groups and professionals focusing on the power of women as advocates and leaders for alternative housing choices.
“You know what I don’t like?,” Kilkenny asks. “I don’t like the word ‘elderly.’ I’m not a big fan of ‘senior citizen’ or ‘person of a certain age,’ either. There is no perfect option it seems. When you go to a store that offers a discount by age they call it a senior discount. I sometimes think I would like to hear ‘wisdom discount’ instead. See, the words we use have meaning. For instance, ‘elderly’ and ‘elder’ have entirely different connotations. I don’t need to tell you which one is negative.”
New York Times writer Judith Graham tackled the subject in her column “The New Old Age” back in 2012. She opined that maybe we should stop creating categories in the first place.
Neither woman came up with a solution, but they were talking about it.
Kilkenny said people were talking about it in the decade before this one when she wrote, “Gerontologist Dee Wadsworth addressed her concerns in the last decade. ‘As a gerontologist I use the phrase ‘older adult.’ Cohort words like Senior and Boomer refer to specific generations. Boomers will never respond to the term senior because that was their parent. I was taught to avoid ageism best to use older adult just like we use younger adult. It refers to the continuum of lifespan development.’”
Kilkenny said terminology is not necessarily the issue, but rather the underlying attitudes about aging that need to be addressed. “It isn’t the actual, specific words that are the problem. It is the meaning and cultural attitudes that surround them. Because we lump a group of older adults into the category of Elderly or Senior we are perpetuating certain strongly held beliefs that may or may not be true of all the people who are being described.” She said it’s this “systemic problem” that leads us to a culture where nursing homes and retirement communities are the norm rather than aging in place or within communities.”
Aroha Philanthropies is currently seeking to change the way we think and talk about aging. In the Spirit of Aroha—a core value of the Maori culture of New Zealand—a word whose full meaning does not even exist in a single equivalent English word, the organization is built on the foundation of love and combines selflessness, tolerance, kindness and compassion.
Founder and president, Ellen Michelson created the organization for all ages, but specifically for “adults in their encore years” to learn to participate in art to open the creative spirit, build social engagement, encourage new skills and bring joy. She called it the emerging field of “artful aging.”
Aroha Philanthropies seeks to improve the quality of life of people age 55 and older by encouraging the proliferation of arts in their lives. Aroha Philanthropies defines “artful aging” as a subset of the broader field of “creative aging”—both new and different ways of describing aging.
The Aroha Philanthropies Foundation created a three-minute animated video called “The Wall” to inspire everyone to think differently about aging. They ask visitors to their website to share the video, using #artfulaging along with it as well as with anything people share that promotes interest in the arts with older adults. They also created a continually updated resource guide to teach others about the emerging field of artful aging. The guide provides a platform to find inspiration, discover current research and locate leading organizations in the field throughout the country.
“Today, we can expect thirty more years of life than past generations – years that hold tremendous, but often untapped, potential for vitality and contribution. As we age, our capacity for creativity increases. We seek meaning and connection,” the site states.
Even Next Avenue, part of PBS, and public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population, talks about aging in terms of what comes next as we age rather than what has been. “Every day, we invite readers to consider what is next, what lies just ahead and what will be revealed in their lives,” the site says. “By exploring questions big and small, we spark action — 95% of readers take an action after reading our stories — and open up a world of possibilities.”
In August of 2007, Marilyn Gardner, columnist for The Christian Science Monitor, wrote about “The Names We Use For People Over 50.” In her article she said, “Whatever you do, don’t say ‘elderly.’ The preferred word of choice in a new survey: ‘older.’”
She wrote about the work of Paul Kleyman, then national coordinator of the Journalists Exchange on Aging to gauge the opinions and preferences of reporters and editors. Of a network of 900 journalists, nearly 100 participants responded who covered issues on aging.
At the time their top choice for a neutral and flexible general term to describe those in later life is “older,” used to modify people, adults, individuals or Americans. The second most widely accepted group description for older people was “seniors.”
“Elderly” was decidedly the word that grates the most, though “elders,” on the other hand, was thought to convey respect. Age-specific references such as “those over 50” or “people 65 and up” were ok among the journalists.
“It’s not just generational labels – nouns – that can convey negative images,” Gardner wrote. “Pesky little words, such as ‘still,’ as in, ‘still driving’ or ‘still jogging,’ imply that these activities are something out of the ordinary, defying the norm. Then there are the adjectives that are meant to sound complimentary but actually boomerang. Think of spry, perky, chipper, feisty, sweet, little and grandmotherly. For one journalist responding to the survey, the cloying phrase “100 years young” represents the worst possible cliché about aging.”
Gardner said part of the challenge for everyone in choosing the right words involves the huge age span in America’s aging population. “It begins around 50 – the qualifying age to join AARP – and stretches to 100 or more.”
That was 10 years ago. Not much has changed, but there is Allure and the ASA and all of the other organizations that even if they don’t care deep down how we talk about aging, will come up with something if for no other reason than to sell us something. Again, it’s slow going.
But no matter what you call it, we’re all aging every day. In fact, science will confirm that we’ve been aging since the moment we were conceived. So no matter what we name it, let’s embrace it. Let’s claim it. And let’s, well, put it off as long as we can.
Robin Seaton Jefferson lives just outside of St. Louis with her husband of 23 years and two daughters. Find her on Twitter and Facebook @SeatonJefferson or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.