When I was a kid, I can recall place in our town that was referred to as the “Old Folks Home”. I knew little about it, but the connotation was pretty clear; it was where people who were old without means to take care of themselves were sent. None of my people or my friend’s people were sent there, as far as I knew, and while the subject of what to do with poor old people was not high on my list of interests, I was at the same time very sure that I did not intend to finish out my days in an Old Folks Home.
There are probably some good reasons for labeling people more or less according to their age group. Infants, pre-teens, teens, young adults, middle aged are age labels that seem to work without causing any serious damage. Sometimes they may seem a bit unfair, but each more or less suggest a place in human life span and what those in it might expect. Each brings to mind a set of experiences that most people in it share to some degree. One thing that each age label has in common is that one anticipateto moving on the next phase. That is true, of course for all but the age label “old age”.
The connotation of old age is that you are at the end of the line, over the hill, or however it may be expressed in your part of the culture. The end is in sight, implies the language, and for most people that is not an delightful thought. The reaction of what has become known as the “active aged” set has been strong and consistent in recent years. The solution to the semantic aspect of the aged problem has been solved by creating three sub-categories for describing “older people”; viz, “Young Old”, “Middle Old” and “Old Old”. The implied suggestion, one has to think, is that its still okay to be young old or middle old. However to be realistic, those who create these categories can’t ignore the fact that some people may finally become Really Old, however that may be defined. They are forced into creating a category for such people.
What I take the implied meaning of Old Old to be is more or less totally out of the loop with regard to independent participation in life as we want it to be. This is comforting because it permits thinking that it is possible never to get old in the sense just suggested. Now matter how old one may become chronologically, there is always the hope that one may never die of old age…just time short of it. That’s an idea, given modern medicine, exercise and nutrition, that may have significant utility.
But, it seems to me, unfortunate that society obsesses with number of years as a criterion for sorting out people who are willfully no longer employed, i.e., do not have paid work to do. Retirement is a term that works for some, even though one meaning of the term is to put away, make non-useful, set aside. That’s not what people mean to say when they say they are retired, but it is clearly what some younger people take the label to mean. Some spirited (I assume) souls opt for “New Age” as an accurate descriptor. It wouldn’t work for me. In the first place, I don’t know what it is supposed to imply, and in the second it conjures up a vision of late middle age hippies.
I resolved this label thingee after much thought and discussion. I know that labels are merely abstractions but they also have an impact on reality. What we call ourselves or what others choose to call us has an impact on our independence and thus quality of life. The label I like, if we must have one, is one that I haven’t mentioned so far. It is senior. Not senior citizen, just senior. My reason for this choice is related to the status hierarchy which influenced most of us when were in high school. If you recall, the seniors were tops. The best. The most envied. Just simply the best. At the pinnacle of our that society.
Thus, when I think about how I want to perceive my present place in life, being a senior sounds pretty good. Several months ago, it didn’t, but that was because I was reacting to silly magazine ads about older people. But now that I’ve got my thinking straight, I relish being a senior, in the best and real sense of the word.