Elder, senior, aging, older, old. I want to be honest about where I am in life. I am, unapologetically, 73 years old. But I don’t really identify with any of these words.
“Elder” implies entitlement to authority and status that I may or may not have. “Senior” is a euphemism for “old” and I don’t go for euphemisms. I’m certainly “aging”–but isn’t everybody? And “old” is how I feel sometimes but I’ve tried calling myself old and it makes me–and others–uncomfortable.
Language matters, as Laura Carstensen writes in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, “In Search of a Word that Won’t Offend ‘Old’ People.” Carstensen, who directs the Stanford Center on Longevity, has tried to get folks to embrace being “old” but it hasn’t caught on. I suspect this is because “old” implies a static and final state. Once you’re “old,” that’s it. Nowhere to go except dead.
And when are you “old”? When I was young, 73 was old but now I would say 90. Maybe if I get to 90 it will be 100. I wonder if today’s 90-year-olds are offended if we think of them as old?
Carstensen had an aha moment when she met a consultant who had a different name for her older customers: she called them “perennials.” Carstensen liked it. So do I. As she writes,
The symbolism it connotes is perfect. For one, “perennials” 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. It’s aspirational.
Perennial is a dynamic term; it doesn’t have the finality of “old.” It could embrace and be embraced by a wide spectrum of the aging population, those who realize new starts are always possible, that the fading of faculties and enterprises does not imply the end of love and usefulness and beauty; those who look forward to the next thing. Perennial folks, like perennial plants, eventually die, but we cherish them to the end and they, in turn, give us pleasure.
I don’t know if Perennials will become a category alongside Millennials and GenXers and subsume the forever-young (now faux-young) Boomer label that is a throwback to babyhood, referring to that postwar birth spurt, but I intend to adopt it for myself.
“Perennial” may become my Word of the Year. I like the botanical meaning, too. I intend to plant a garden this spring that includes lots of perennials, and I intend to associate with other Grandmother types–mature, dynamic women of undefined age–who share my passion for a better world. Perennials?
What do you think? Anybody care to join me in the Perennial Generation?