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The Language of Aging
From:
Mary L. Flett, Ph.D. --  Aging Expert Mary L. Flett, Ph.D. -- Aging Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: San Francisco, CA
Sunday, October 3, 2021

 

This past week included reunions and separations. Separations are becoming more and more frequent, as I learn of friends and loved ones dying seemingly on a weekly and monthly basis. I am getting more practice in writing condolences—a skill I am not keen to hone. This is understandable, but certainly not welcomed.

Reunions include both college and high school gatherings, as well as more invitations to get together with local friends as we emerge from our COVID caves. Still, COVID remains a deciding factor in these gatherings. My 50th high school reunion was canceled and my 45th college reunion is going forward, albeit in outside venues with appropriate social distancing.

My First Time as a Senior

Fifty years ago I succeeded in matriculating through high school. That was my first time being a “senior”. In 1971, qualifications for being a senior in high school included, but were not limited to, attending some classes, taking the SATs and ACTs, and smoking pot (not weed in those days).

I truly felt no regret in learning that my 50th high school reunion had to be re-scheduled due to COVID. My connection to those years and those people is tenuous at best. Truth be told, I did not even attend my graduation. I prefer to keep those memories at arm’s length.

I have only been to one high school reunion, and did not enjoy the experience. Seeing my classmates (some of whom I honestly did not recognize) in their adult guises triggered memories I had tucked away. My insecurities and self-doubts were rekindled and I all too quickly regressed into my solipsistic teen-age self. I floundered in that familiar space of insecurity (once again) lacking in status, looks, and a boyfriend.

On the other hand, I delighted in being back in my old stomping grounds geographically speaking, and was keenly aware that I was no longer a part of that community any more. I was far more comfortable driving around my old neighborhood, recalling the sounds of laughter, remembering trick or treating and collecting pennies for UNICEF,  and the joys of raking leaves into huge piles and jumping in them.

The Second Time I Was a Senior

This weekend also happens to be my college reunion. I was privileged to attend Eisenhower College, a small, liberal arts school in the Finger Lakes region of New York from 1971 to 1975. My school is now only a footnote in history, as it sadly succumbed to financial challenges it could not overcome. Our alumni, however, remain a vital and engaged group of people.

I blossomed during college. I began to like myself and found that what I thought were flaws were actually valuable assets. I was in a safe environment that allowed me to experiment with substances and ideas. These expanded my mind in ways that continue to inform who I am and what I do. I was challenged to think outside the box and then required to support my conclusions. I was encouraged to express myself and held to a standard that demanded I become the best I could be. When graduation came after four short years, my ascent to “Senior” was measurable. I had become an adult.

Senior for a Third Time

Many decades later, I turned 55. For some arbitrary reason, this age was chosen and I moved into my third iteration as a Senior. This does not resemble the first two in any way. Pomp and Circumstance will not be played when I graduate this time.

Unlike the previous curricula, I have been schooled by life in ways that I never could have imagined. Some of the courses I signed up for and some I did not. The lessons have, at times, been easy and others have been way beyond my capacities to learn. I have had to take several remedial courses as I wasn’t sufficiently prepared the first time.

Need a Better Metaphor

Using “senior” this way makes for a funny anecdote, but it fails in terms of describing a time of life that spans decades. A time of life that is anything but a steady progression to graduation. Aging demands renewal, adaptation, and growth on every level and at every stage; a developmental arc that has no set curriculum, but is always teaching us.

Senior is just too small and timid a word to describe all that is required of us to become fully human and embrace the shift that aging brings. This is why I am so insistent that the term “senior” be eradicated from our Thesaurus when speaking of aging adults.

Hard to Drop It

In terms of dictionary usage, defining senior is fraught with vagueness. On the one hand, it is a measure of age (“He was five years her senior.”) and on the other, it is a measure of status (“senior officer”). But even Merriam Webster resorts to a better word to define what is the anticipated meaning of “senior”: elder.

I recognize how integral this word has become. “Senior citizen” is a commonly used term that describes a person who is somewhere between 55 and death. It has been codified into law (“Senior Safe Act”) to protect a group of folks who are perceived as frail or vulnerable.  It rolls off the lips of younger people and advertisers when describing older adults. It exists as policy (“senior citizens”) identifying eligibility for benefits after attaining a certain age. It is found in community settings (“Senior Centers”) and education centers (“Senior Learners”).

These examples are everywhere, and all are explicitly and subtly ageist.

Cultural Use of “Elder”

The term “elder” is used in many different cultures, and I don’t mean to appropriate it. In my view, the term “elder” describes a person whose life experiences and wisdom are shared with those they interact with. Contributions to the greater community good center more on shared wisdom and experience than widgets produced. An elder is valued for who they are as well as what they do, and plays a central role in sustaining family and community.

Because of this and because I believe the term “senior” is ageist, I am vowing to use other, better words to describe the incredible variation and expression of aging and elderhood. I prefer to use the word “elder” to describe who I am becoming. I believe this is more accurate without limiting either the linear progression of accumulated years or my status within my extended family and communities in which I participate.

While it is true that many elders have lived long lives, elderhood is a time of life where there is less “doing” and more “being”. It is not just the accumulation of years.  It is a time of life where the focus shifts from how much is produced to sustaining what has been produced.


Two books that address these ideas far more eloquently and thoroughly than I do should be required reading as you matriculate into your elderhood. They are: Louise Aronson’s, “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life” (2019), and Stephen Jenkinson’s “Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble” (2018).  Find yourself a copy and start reading!

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Mary L Flett, PhD.
Group: Five Pillars of Aging
Dateline: Sonoma, CA United States
Direct Phone: 707-938-5531
Cell Phone: 707-303-6517
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