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Five Years of Blogging about Age: Language

Posted Feb 19 2009 5:29pm

blogging bug image Some people have annual “blogiversaries” celebrating the date of the birth of their blogs. I don’t have one of those. It took me, while I was still working full time and commuting more than four hours a day, six or seven months to get this blog up and running, according to old notes.

Time Goes By began in fits and starts of posting and just the banner took four iterations before I came up with a satisfactory idea.

For seven or eight years before that, I had been spending much of my free time researching aging. So it feels like I’ve been writing about getting old for about a dozen years.

Although I was dinking around with the blog during much of 2003, the steady stream of daily posts began early in 2004, making 2009 a fifth blogiversary, however mushy the actual date is. So without a precise day to celebrate, this year is a good time to take some stock about what I’ve learned (and not); how my thoughts, ideas and beliefs about getting old have changed (and not); and how the landscape of aging has changed (and not), particularly with the advent of baby boomers entering late life, which I had not anticipated in the beginning.

So, from time to time during 2009, I will ruminate on these things.

I give language a great deal of seriousness. Specificity is important, finding just the right word to express what I’m thinking, and the difficulty in doing that sometimes, brings ideas into sharper, clearer focus. It is always worth the effort.

One of my first notes about Time Goes By was that there would be no pussyfooting with synonyms and euphemisms for the word “old.” Certainly not “golden-ager” or “third-ager” or “silver” this and that. In addition to being a form a disinformation, those phrases are just icky.

But in time I realized I had pulled my own punches. Look at the subtitle, in the banner, of this blog: “what it’s really like to get old ER. I remember the moment I chose it.

The first subtitle I settled on was “A journal of aging.” I knew it was boring and searched for something better while my colleague and brilliant designer, Freddie LaSenna, was bringing my banner idea to life. When the solution hit me one day, I went to Freddie’s desk to give him the new copy to insert: “What it’s really like to get old.”

And, by god, as I stood there with Freddie, I said, “Hold it, change that to 'older.'”

The difference in just two letters is big. As much as I had come to dislike all the cutesy references to old people through my years of research, I could not yet state the topic of Time Goes By so baldly and that –er at the end of the word softened the blow.

We grow, we learn and the mistake that has been irritating me for too long now has been rectified in the new banner that will accompany the redesign of this blog when it is launched later this year.

Long-time readers of TGB know that I regularly get on my high horse about the language of aging and (as this post reinforces) it will not stop any time soon. There has been a small renaissance in use of the word “elder" and I’m pleased with my part in it. Still too often, however, I cringe at, for example, the media’s ubiquitous use of “elderly” to describe anyone in any circumstance who is older than about 65.

Elderly implies frailty and senility, and all three adjectives automatically dismiss the person so described as no longer consequential. I promise you that no matter how fit, healthy and articulate you are, if your name turns up in a newspaper as, say, in a robbery, the story will read:

“The mugger got away with 70-year-old Jane Doe’s handbag, but the elderly woman was unharmed.”

Now what picture of Jane Doe comes to mind as you read that sentence? How is that picture different if you read the sentence without “elderly?” And importantly, if Jane were elderly, senile or frail, the crime becomes more heinous and deserves further explication.

Some people become frail or senile as they get old, but it cannot and should not be assumed of every old person. Additionally, the adjective “elderly” in that report is superfluous; the woman’s age is enough. Yet I see similar sentences several times every week as "elderly" is mindlessly used as a synonym for "old."

By the way, apparently celebrities are exempt from the elderly tag. No one refers to Clint Eastwood, Doris Roberts, Ed Asner and old business titans such as George Soros and Warren Buffet - all born in 1930 - with that word.

Language is powerful. If someone tells a kid again and again that he is stupid, he and those around him who hear it will come to believe that he is, whether or not it is true. It can affect how his teachers, classmates and family treat him, keep him from trying hard and diminish the possibilities of his future. Equally so, if an entire culture uses belittling language in regard to elders, both elders and the culture will believe old people are less important than those of other ages.

I thought I understood that when I began Time Goes By, but it was much more vague compared to now. New variations turn up constantly and repetitively, and five years later I am still learning the full force of negative consequences on public policy, healthcare, employment, even fashion and other less crucial aspects of elders' lives.

[ At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Carol Gardner asks and answers the question, A New Career After 65? In Your Dreams. ]

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