I have been thinking a lot about what to call myself as I grow older. I really don’t like being a “senior”, silver or otherwise. I have been a “senior” twice already, once when I was in my early teens, and once when I was in my early twenties. Both these “senior” periods were characterized by completion of specific curricula designed to launch me into adulthood. Having successfully graduated from both high school and college, I really don’t want to have to undergo yet another “senior” year.
I also don’t like “older adult”. I have written about this before. This term seems to be a convenient add-on rather than a good descriptor of what this time of life really is. You may remember that the academic term reflects specific categories of old: “young old”, “old”, “older old”, and “oldest old”. Seems to me this meme has about run its course – the only place to go after “oldest old” is “really, really old”.
Truth of the matter is, knowing what to call myself as I chug along chronologically is both helpful and a hindrance. It is helpful because it can quickly sort out things and allow my brain to focus on what is useful. It is a hindrance because that same sorting mechanism tends to categorize variables in broad swathes ending up creating stereotypes.
This brings up one of the most insidious problems of all – not knowing what to call ourselves results in being absorbed into a void – “THEM”. It is easier to ignore “them” than to pay attention to “me”.
More and more writers, thinkers, journalists, and researchers are looking at this issue. It took social psychologists to identify the early developmental stages – infanthood, early childhood, childhood, teenager and adulthood. The scientists based much of their work on identifying tasks associated with these stages. The famous observer of childhood, Jean Piaget, noted the essential shift in a child’s ability to separate herself from others, a significant phase in brain development. Social psychologist Erik Erikson designated specific tasks that needed to be addressed in terms of acquiring social skills over the lifespan, noting that not everyone achieves success, even though they are chronologically aging. Gerontologists built on these theoretical structures and explored what it means to grown older thereby contributing the notion that tasks and stages may extend beyond puberty and work life.
Now advertising has us in their grasp. Twenty and thirty-somethings are naming us, framing us, and locking us into categories of sales targets. You are all well aware of this. There are more ads for medications for chronic diseases of old age (e.g., heart, arthritis, and diabetes), incontinence, erectile dysfunction, personal safety and security (“help! I’ve fallen!”). We are depicted as energetic but with grey hair, smiling as we walk, do gardening, or engage in happy group gatherings.
While these slices of life may work well for advertisers, they do not come close to exploring the variability within the Baby Boomer generation. It is that variability that makes naming us so challenging.
My proposal is that we call this time of our lives “elderhood”. Just as we transitioned from childhood to adulthood, elderhood can encompass a broad range of ages, functioning, capacities, and tasks. To adopt Erik Erikson’s model, tasks in elderhood might include transitioning from “doing to being” (e.g., going from working to retiring), adapting to changing roles (e.g., parenting and grandparenting), managing isolation and loneliness (e.g., being partnered and unpartnered due to death, separation, or dementia), and coming to terms with mortality.
Elderhood is not a target or goal, rather it is a phase that may encompass many years chronologically, or may consist of transformation of body, mind, and soul within a short period. Within in these boundaries will be found individuals who are demonstrating skills at adapting to new circumstances, new ideas, and new ways of being. There will also be those who are less skilled and find themselves preferring to preserve their rituals and habits acquired over a lifetime. There will be those filled with wisdom and compassion, and those who no longer know who they are or have succumbed to bitterness.
While research may further define and clarify all the elements to be found in elderhood, it is up to those of us who are exploring these new frontiers to claim this territory for our own. So I am claiming “elderhood” as my name for growing old. I would delight in hearing your thoughts and ideas!
FIVE PILLARS OF AGING
Stereotypes arise from experiences and then become templates. When you were born has a lot to do with the stereotype of aging you grew up with. There are so many opportunities in this age of media to address the stereotypes that create false understandings and fear about aging. Take a look at this AARP video on “Young vs. Old” and see what I mean. Then go to the Project Implicit site at Harvard University where research is being done on implicit bias and check out your own beliefs about aging (click on “AgeIAT).