Being of Chinese heritage, the man’s age was hard to tell. But he didn’t look like a spring chicken. “Must be tough having to stand all day,” I commiserated, buying tulips from his stall one evening. Without missing a beat, he shot back: “When I’m old like you, I retire. Now I work.”
His words rattled me: “Old like you….” Only my kids call me ‘old’ to my face – with joshing affection. The previous week my friends had told me my new haircut made me look ‘younger’. And who doesn’t like hearing that? Who doesn’t like hearing at reunions, “You haven’t changed a bit?” Or “You don’t look your age.” But I should know better. I shouldn’t be seduced by platitudes. I’m writing weekly about ageing in its complexities and richness, and yet I found myself flummoxed at being called ‘old’.
What is it about that word? Has it become a taboo word like ‘nigger’ or ‘retard’ – at least when affixed to anyone under eighty? Is it now an insult to call a 60-something ‘old’ or is it calling a spade a spade? To a younger generation, we may seem as old as our grandparents did to us. Despite gym membership, personal trainers, and the array of anti-aging paraphernalia that money can buy, we may be fooling ourselves. To Gens X,Y,Z sixty is not the new forty. But is it ‘old’? Is seventy?
I was cogitating on this encounter with the flower seller when, out of the blue, I received a provocative email from a reader in her sixties. It was about this very issue – the word ‘old’. Ann Ritchie laid down a challenge. We should reclaim the word ‘old’. We should proudly wear it. By our very ownership of ‘old’, we’ll change the bad connotations that have clung to the word. Let’s proclaim to the world, “Sure, I’m old and just watch what an old person can do.”
Here’s some of what Ann wrote: I am 66 and consider myself old, not really old, but old. When I say to anyone that I am old it generates a long diatribe from many people my age about 60 being the new 40 and other such stuff. This is also annoying. If we are to get away from the stereotype of “old” then we have to show people that “old” people can, and do, do things. They can work, they can create, they can exercise…….
Recently I heard a woman being interviewed on ABC radio. She was about 64 and when asked if she was old she said, “Of course I am.” I was delighted. Here was a vibrant, creative woman accepting her stage in life and showing everyone out there that “oldness” is not to be feared.
My partner has the same attitude. He’s been cheerily calling himself ‘old’ since he was 50 even though he is one of those annoyingly boyish faces that might even fool the flower seller. I’m less gung-ho at 64 about wearing the mantle of ‘old’ yet. I’m too aware of the power of a word to demean, undermine, wound. I’m aware of how hard it is to turn a ‘bad’ word into a good one.
I’ve nothing but admiration for the young women championing ‘fat and proud.’ But I don’t think they’ve yet turned ‘fat’ into a term of endearment. Nor do I think ‘queer’ has quite worked for the section of the gay movement that’s adopted it. Marginalized groups have usually chosen to ditch terms that have acquired derogatory meanings, and to adopt a new descriptor instead.
‘Retarded’ was once a perfectly good word, defined as ‘less advanced in mental, physical or social development than is usual for one’s age’. But by the time I became a newspaper reporter it was considered a term of abuse. Not even ‘disabled person’ would do. I was educated by the disabilities community into using ‘people with disabilities.’ No-one was fighting to reclaim ‘retarded’. We feminists were very particular about language. Not for nothing did we fight against being called ‘girls’ or ‘chicks’ when men argued these were harmless terms of endearment. We knew it meant ‘you’re not to be taken seriously.’
In a society where the old are seen as ‘losing it’ yet are expected to work longer, the word is freighted with danger. It’s an excuse for discrimination. When you hear ‘old woman/old man’? do you think frailty, illness, disability? How easy would it be to change the meaning to vitality, wisdom, experience? The Australian Human Rights Commission with its Power of Oldness campaign is doing its best to change the vibe around ‘old’. And good on you Ann Ritchie for leading a vanguard. But it’s an uphill battle. I would rather battle for chronological age and its labels to become less relevant. Instead, let’s focus on people’s values, abilities and strengths which vary enormously within age groups as much as between.
My generation has struggled for an alternative to ‘old’. ‘Senior’ won’t do. Some people think ‘elderly’ is demeaning. ‘Mature’ sounds like a cheese. ‘Older person’ may be best. I’m happy to call myself a ‘grumpy old woman.’ But I’m not yet ready for the man-in-the-street to call me ‘old.’ Because I fear what he means is I’m over the hill, past it. Sad what’s happened to a once perfectly good word.