When you think about getting older, how do you define what that means for you? Do you ever see yourself as being “elderly”? Do you envision yourself when you hear the words “senior citizen”? (And let’s face it, that’s probably the most ridiculous of the terms out there considering we don’t have “junior citizens” or anything of the sort.)
Still, as Agnes Herman points out in her article “Aging Can Offer Opportunities,” most of us don’t mind enjoying the “senior” discounts. And for those who do retire, as Agnes did early, the advantages of having more free time, fewer demands, and less stress overall are additional perks.
But of course, we don’t have to wait until we retire to create this kind of lifestyle. We don’t have to retire at all. In fact, many characteristics of the stereotypical senior citizen don’t really have much to do with age at all, or at least they don’t have to be related to age, even if we as a society have somewhat arbitrarily decided they do, such as retirement, volunteer work, adapting our lifestyle to physical changes, having more control over our time and environment. All of these are choices we might make at any age.
So if we strip away other people’s definitions of what it means to age, what it means to be over 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 . . . where does that leave us? How do we define ourselves?
We all have different comfort levels with various terms. Some shy away from “elderly” but don’t mind being seen as an “elder.” Some don’t mind being called “older” but feel uncomfortable being called simply “old.” Yet another person might get fed up with euphemisms and actually demand to be called “old,” dammit!
I’ve always relished the term Crone, the idea of taking back its original meaning of wise woman. Some, including those who chose not to have children, prefer to be seen as grandmother.
I’ll tell you a secret, in fact. Every time I write—for this blog, for a workshop or keynote, for a book or article—I have to stop yet again and consider this issue: What do we call ourselves? Elders? Do I avoid the word “old” or use it unabashedly? Do I refer to us as aging, or stick to euphemism or numbers, like post-50? Maybe the over-60s? Boomers . . . and older? Matures?
It’s tricky, this act of choosing definitions, and even trickier when we try to define a larger group of people who may or may not have anything in common besides their similarity in age.
Which brings me back to the only person any of us can ever truly and accurately define. Ourselves. Yet this is the one person we so often let others define for us. We plan to retire roughly when we’re supposed to. We see ourselves as less and less attractive according to the dictates of Society (with a capital S). And heaven forbid we start any long-term venture—a business, a campaign, an ongoing artistic endeavor—beyond “retirement age.”
Fortunately, what I’ve just described is applying to fewer and fewer people. More boomers, for example, are starting new businesses than any other generation today, and women are at the forefront of this. More people are realizing that they don’t want to (or perhaps can’t) retire, and regardless of the circumstances, they are exploring new ways of working and of making the future work.
Once again, we’re back to that place where the old definitions no longer automatically apply. For many of us, this means that how we define ourselves in our 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond is not a whole lot different than how we would define ourselves in our 20s, 30s, and 40s—based on our interests, our values, our plans for the future, our relationships, our capacity to love, to give, to create. The only differences are that now we have more experience and more wisdom, and that now our bodies are changing in new ways that we must face as part of our plans for the future. But even these vary from individual to individual.
So when you strip away who you’re supposed to be, how do you define who you are? In your entry in the World Dictionary of People, are you a noun? An adjective? A verb? Do you have multiple meanings depending on context? When you use yourself in a sentence, what are you doing? Where are you going?
Who are you, really?