Perennials-that-love-shadeElder, 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?

13 thoughts on “Perennial

  1. I’m leaning in. I think I like the rhyme and resonance between Millenial and Perennial. Maybe that is because I have given birth to Millenials. I also like the way Richard Rohr and others use The Perennial Tradition as a label for that foundational wisdom that emerges, generation after generation. Richard Rohr: “The Perennial Tradition points to recurring themes and truths within all of the world’s religions. At their most mature level, religions cultivate in their followers a deeper union with God, with each other, and with reality—or what is. The work of religion is to re-ligio—re-ligament or reunite what our egos and survival instincts have put asunder, namely a fundamental wholeness at the heart of everything.” AT THE HEART OF EVERYTHING. That’s all!

  2. I’ve enjoyed the 27 days since I became 80. There is a new brightness in my life. I freely use words like curmudgeon, old dog, grump, grouch in such a way to mean exactly the opposite. “Senior” doesn’t bother me. In fact, I am not now in a psychological moment to resist any label. I guess I’m just a stuck-in-the-mud would-be pilgrim from a different age not yet aware of my condition! Thanks for the blog, Nancy.

    • Oh good. Maybe this discomfort with–yet need for–labels that I’m experiencing is just temporary. Like all silly things it will fall away after a while.

  3. Cousin Nancy – Cousin Charlie made reference to your “Perennials” on a recent Facebook post so I checked it out tonight and then I kept reading more … and more … and more! What an interesting and thought provoking meander I had through Grandma’s house in the woods and the halls of education in Africa, all the way to the challenges of painful knees, sexual harassment and Donald Trump! I have signed up to be notified by email of your next entry – Well done!

  4. Pingback: Exercise | the practical mystic

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