Yes, labels (such as “elderly”) matter, for better or worse. They are also kind of dangerous, and as a culture, we’re hooked on them. They’re like a verbal system that dehumanizes communication, much as the medical model (and its systems) dehumanize caregiving. Labels precede and define our attitudes and beliefs, setting up assumed, unspoken (and therefore dangerous) agreements of shared values, giving us a shorthand that stereotypes an individual in order to facilitate slapdash conversation. For the sake of ease, we get sloppy about meaning.
As some of you have said, “elder” describes a person who has lived longer and, historically, means someone who is wise, but lordy knows that not all older people are wise or want to be held to that standard. We might look for a term that emphasizes the positive aspects or opportunities of greater age, such as matriarch/patriarch, elderpro, life adept, life maven, or virtuoso vita, but at some point it gets a bit silly while dismissing all of the very real and necessary challenges of aging. (Hard challenges can be good, but whether they’re perceived as good or bad, they’re a real part of our human experience.)
Taking the lead from person-directed care, it might be wise to use specific descriptors when speaking of an individual so that language is personal rather than general. But when we must refer to a group, a wildly varied collective of individual personalities, let’s keep it simple while being care-ful of generalities. Older people. Mature people. As has been suggested, and taking another cue from person-directed care, when speaking TO someone older about aging, just ask what term they favor. Hopefully we’ll get a wonderful broad and colorful palette of options.
But this question is, I think, even more important than it appears—it points to a mistake that we made, a wrong turn that we took as a culture. I think that in the industrial age, when we started applying systems/QC/efficiency thinking (originally designed for dealing with things) to human beings, we began creating damaging human environments (schools at all levels, workplaces, and nursing homes) that disenfranchise individuals, denying our beautiful uniqueness that is our humanity. We devalue personal experience for the sake of control. Think about it. Can you feel the narrow corner into which we’ve painted ourselves? More fool us.
Bottom line: Language creates our reality even as it describes our reality. It frees us to communicate even as it makes meanings that limit us. We need to change both our systems and our language if we want to create lasting, enriching changes in our human experience.
First posted on ChangingAging.org the long-term care culture change blog of Dr. Bill Thomas.