If you’re in your 60s or 70s, leading an active and engaged life, there’s probably one word you seldom use to describe yourself: “old.” Most people in that age group simply don’t think of themselves that way! But language does matter, and labels have a powerful impact, so maybe we active, aging boomers need a new word to refer to our active and involved stage of life.
This recent article we just discovered in the Washington Post provides some fascinating insight into this issue, and suggests a new label – perennial – that just might catch on. The article, titled “In search of a word that won’t offend ‘old’ people,” was written by two Stanford professors involved at that University’s Center on Longevity, and it really does provide some food for thought. “As long as we are healthy and engaged in life — as most people in their 60s, 70s and older are — we don’t view ourselves as old,” says the Post article. “But by using ‘they’ rather than ‘we’ in our minds and our conversations, we keep an entire stage of life at arm’s length.” The authors suggest that, if active seniors fail to embrace the reality of aging – whatever we choose to call it – then “the story about old people remains a dreary one about loss and decline.”
When it comes to describing accurately this stage of life, the authors say, “We need a term that aging people can embrace” and which does not cause offense. Too many people hate the term “old,” in spite of the efforts of some to make that term more acceptable. “Embracing the term ‘old’ is probably a fool’s errand,” said one of the Washington Post authors. “Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve tried to persuade people to use the word ‘old’ proudly, but I have so far failed to get a single person to do so. In fact,” she added, “even I avoid ‘old’ for fear that the term might offend.”
As experts in retirement who speak and write frequently about the challenges and opportunities that come with aging, we can relate to some of what the Washington Post writers are saying: there aren’t a lot of positive terms that describe those who embrace their advanced age. “Alternative terms range from distant but respectful to outright patronizing,” the article says. “None of them are appealing to old people.” Who of us gravitates toward tried and true terms like senior citizens, retirees, elders or the elderly? On the other end of the spectrum, there are sarcastic terms for older people – think “geezer” or “old coot” – mostly whispered in private. Many of us in our 60s and 70s hold onto the term “boomers,” but it won’t be long before today’s Gen Xers start hitting their 60s, so what descriptive language can we use then?
Of course, the article says, not all “older people” are the same – far from it. If we assume that “older” means age 60 and above, there’s a three-decade difference between 60-year-olds and 90-year-olds. “The functional status of ‘old people’ has also shifted substantially over historical time,” the Washington Post article says. “A century ago, 40 was old. Today’s older generations are healthier, more cognitively fit and better educated than any previous generation.” We agree. Based on our interactions with thousands of seniors, today’s older adults are more energetic, more active and more engaged in living than any older generation in history.
As the article points out, people have conflicting ideas about aging. “Most people say that they don’t want to grow old,” says the article, “but they also want to live a long time. Yet, we’ve never settled on a good term for old people.” That’s where the term “perennial” comes in. At first, write the Post authors, the word sounds unusual; yet, they add, “The symbolism it connotes is perfect. For one, ‘perennial’ makes clear that we’re still here, blossoming again and again. It also suggests a new model of life in which people engage and take breaks, making new starts repeatedly. Perennials aren’t guaranteed to blossom year after year, but given proper conditions, good soil and nutrients, they can go on for decades.” The word “perennials,” says the Washington Post, is “aspirational.”
So as an AgingOptions blog reader and radio listener, we’d love to hear from you: what’s your reaction to the term “perennial”? Could you see yourself (assuming you’re 60 or older) describing yourself as an active perennial? Maybe the authors are right: words matter, and without a label that portrays aging in the right light, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and our peers. Time for all you perennials to step up and be counted!
Of course, no matter what label you choose, if retirement is in your future you need to get serious about planning for that exciting sage of your life. Too many people think “retirement planning” means little more than preparing a financial plan, but that’s a dangerously inadequate way to prepare: a financial plan will quickly unravel without considering your finances in conjunction with other aspects of retirement, including your housing choices, your legal protection, your medical coverage and the dynamics of your family. This means you need a special type of retirement plan: a LifePlan exclusively offered by AgingOptions. A LifePlan becomes the blueprint you need to build the retirement of your dreams.
Why not invest just a few hours and find out the facts about an AgingOptions LifePlan? Join Rajiv Nagaich at a free LifePlanning Seminar. You’ll discover for yourself the power of this planning breakthrough. For dates, times and locations of currently scheduled seminars, visit our Upcoming Events page where you can register online. For assistance, feel free to contact us during the week.
We’ll look forward to meeting all you perennials at a LifePlanning Seminar soon. Age on!
(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)