Society certainly has many words to describe our aging folks, including the new old age, silver foxes, graying, aging, older, old, sage, senior, elder, elderly, senior citizen, baby boomer, boomers, coming of age, old-old v. young-old, decades of aging, wellderly (blend of "well" and "elderly"), and the third age. Coming across all the terms makes me wonder how our aging community feels about these words and what growing older means to them.
If you think about it, “seniors” are viewed by society as a homogeneous population, even though, as a group, seniors span over 50 years. Lumping generations together is more reflective of society’s ageism, rather than creating a useful category to address real issues and needs. Within that 50-year span, older adults are actually in many different stages of life and development. The term “decades of aging” refers to the diversity of needs that are typically found from decade to decade by seniors. In other words, seniors 50-59 will have different (along with some similar) needs than do seniors in the 60-69, 70-79, 80-89, and later decades of aging.
From a historical perspective, let’s not forget that in each decade there have been seismic changes. These have profoundly influenced society, especially with regard to civil and human rights issues, such as the end of segregation, the liberation of women, the HIV epidemic, and the ever-changing world of “LGBT rights,” as we know it today.
The words "old," "aged," and "aging" can have positive connotations when we use them to refer to a “golden oldie” (e.g., a favorite song from the past) or to wine or cheese. They can have negative connotations when we apply them to people. However, the word “old” has been reclaimed by Old Lesbians Organizing for Change and other groups as an expression of pride in aging.
“Elder,” for many, signifies great wisdom and experience. In many societies and cultures, elders are revered. An African proverb says, “The death of an old person is like the loss of a library.” These words describe the important role given to older adults in many African cultures.
The word “sage” can be defined as proceeding from, or characterized by, wisdom, prudence, and good judgment (e.g., sage advice). “Wellderly” has been coined to describe the new group of well, active, healthy older people who play a major role in society.
The term “third age” is used to characterize that period of our life span when work takes on less importance and other interests, such as hobbies, friendships, and life's closure, occupy more time. It is a period when a person can fulfill their personal goals, dreams, and life plans. The adventure we are now free to choose involves new ways of work and new ways of love. These are important not only for our personal survival but also for society. In our third age, we are previewing new possibilities for society as a whole.
Is it true that “older is wiser”? A 2010 study conducted in North America by Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo, Canada, described the five crucial steps of wise reasoning: willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; willingness to search for compromise; recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better. In sum, the researchers found that, indeed, the older you are, the wiser you are.
Baby boomers have transformed every stage of life they’ve experienced, and growing older is proving no different. The Civil Rights Movement, rock & roll, the sexual revolution, Stonewall and LGBT rights, the emancipation of women in the workplace, Vietnam, and the 1960s student movements were all transforming events for the now-older generations. The longevity revolution – possibly the greatest societal achievement of the 20th century – is something to celebrate. It could also be the greatest challenge of the 21st century. We must have the right policies and practices in place to provide support, and ensure equality, for LGBT seniors.
Only recently has focus turned to the needs of this community around food and nutrition, housing, economic opportunity, emotional support, intimacy, medical care, purpose, and respect. Much work has yet to be done in order to ensure that LGBT older adults have rights and opportunities to age successfully.
What are your thoughts about the issues of “aging”? What “aging” terms do you prefer? What does the process of “aging” mean to you? Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org or login here and leave a comment below. Let's discuss!
About Terri Clark
Terri Clark, MPH, CHES, is co-chair of the LGBT Elder Initiative (LGBTEI). The LGBTEI fosters and advocates for services and resources that are culturally competent, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of LGBT older adults. Clark is also the Prevention Services Coordinator for ActionAIDS, and a member of Widener University’s Sexuality and Aging Consortium. To comment on this article, suggest topics for future articles or for more information, please visit www.lgbtei.org or call the LGBTEI at 267.546.3448.
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