Are you ready for a new debate over what to call old people? This happens every few years: We’ve tried senior citizens, seniors, the elderly, elders, retirees, and even gerontos. Lately, “older adults” seemed to be catching on. That’s the phrase I mostly use though it is not entirely satisfying either. Older than who?
Then there are the euphemisms for old age itself: Three decades ago, the British historian Peter Laslett created the phrase “Third Age.” Later, the marketer Ken Dychtwald spun it into the age wave. Actress Jane Fonda (who is 80) has a Ted Talk called “life’s third act.”
Anything it seems, but getting old.
In a Dec. 29 Washington Post op-ed, Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen tried a new description for, I guess, people over 65. Her word: perennials. Like the plants that, she says, blossom “again and again” if given proper care and support.
Carstensen, who is founding director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity, is not to be taken lightly. She is one of the nation’s experts in how aging changes the way people respond to their environment. Among other things, she has done years of research that shows that people are generally more positive about life as they age.
She, in turn, credits a consumer marketing consultant named Maureen Connors for coming up with “perennial” as a euphemism for an old person. Connors, she says, uses the word to refer to older consumers in her work with the fashion industry. Carstensen likes it because it helps people “shift away from fear of growing old and toward embracing living long.”
Fair enough. But growing old is about two experiences. It is about a period of time when people are active and, as Carstensen notes, often relatively happier than when they were younger. For those with financial resources, it can be a time of travel, emotionally-satisfying volunteer work, and learning. Even for those with more limited resources, it can mean more time with family.
But then there is the part of aging that we all want to deny. It is also a time of loss. There will come a time when most of us will suffer from some physical or cognitive limitation. Two-thirds of us will require some level of supports and services after reaching age 65, and half of us will need a high-level of such care. We may live relatively healthy and active lives into our 80s, but many of us will face a period of a year or more when we will be frail. This is both true and unpleasant.
I get it, this is all a downer than nobody want to think about. That’s why Baby Boomers are so bothered by words like “old” and “aging.” And why businesses and non-profits that provide services to, umm, older adults, try to use new words to describe what they do. The trade group that represents many non-profit senior service providers rebranded itself as Leading Age. The former American Association of Retired Persons became just plain AARP and markets primarily to 50- and 60-somethings rather than to those in their 70s or 80s. Continuuing Care Retirement Communites are now Life Plan Communities.
But words do matter, and I fear that hiding behind bland descriptions like “perennials” is just another form of denial. As long as we think of ourselves as immortal (which perennial implies) we’ll have even less reason to plan emotionally, financially, and physically, for the near-inevitability of age-related limitations.
Happy, optimistic, or what Carstensen calls “aspirational,” words like perennial serve an important purpose by reminding people that aging is not only about frailty. And they certainty are useful for marketers like Connors and Dychtwald , who help businesses sell clothes, travel, and the like to aging Baby Boomers. But they also mask a reality of aging.
So will “perennial,” take root? Probably not, in part because in the end, it means nothing unless you are talking about a garden. As my wife put it,” I am not a plant.”