Wanted: A Wonderful Word For Us

I am searching for a word. No dementia jokes please. A word: glamorous, rich, evocative, that we can appropriate to give old age a better tint. Just as Gays did, and forever improved the image and the language. We need something to distinguish us, for example, as the last generation that experienced life in the home without computers, while being the generation that helped the invention to reach its present sophisticated state.

The man who invented the mouse, Douglas Engelbart, died only last year at the age of 88. I wonder if, in his later years, any patronising young git asked him if he knew what a mouse was.

I was thrilled to see that my generation’s intimacy and expertise with computers were recognised by The Guardian UK in December when it asked actor Sheila Hancock, aged 80, to give advice on online privacy and security. She brought to bear on the subject of privacy her earlier life experience: “I grew up in a generation where we kept things private, where a letter was a lovely little very private thing that arrived. Suddenly we can send messages that could misfire, that anybody can see.

My grandchildren have a completely different attitude to privacy, but I feel I have to assume that everybody can see what I am doing on the web.” (“Spot on,” said the security expert who worked with The Guardian on the Snowden stories. )

Is there a word that describes people with this sort of applied, hands-on knowledge of life – all aspects of life – who happen to be 80-ish? Who are live wires, contributors to life and the gaiety, song and dance of it? Elderly will not do.

‘Elderly’ has a shakiness about it, don’t you think? As though the frail person thus described might expire if the word ‘old’ were used to her or his face. I use it to get the electricity back on or the phone fixed. That is, when I am not in actual view. But I couldn’t use it face-to-face. I would find it impossible to talk face-to-face with someone whom I knew thought I was elderly. When the word ‘frail’ came up in a discussion about one of my bones, I made the rheumatologist erase it from his Dictaphone-thingy. He obliged. Good chap.

‘Senior’ is in wide use; very popular in public service sort of communications. It seems to confer some privilege, but we know it doesn’t. It makes me feel like a Girl Guide, responsible but not powerful or glam.

“Oldster” is terrible. Don’t even go there. Makes me feel I should have four wheels. ‘Ageing’ is ridiculous. As though we all aren’t. It does have a certain levelling quality though. Like hats that make everyone look middle aged. Except those saucers that women fashionably wear to the races or royal weddings. They make women look demented. We don’t want that association. Ageing is used for people who are old, but its connotation is ‘actively crumbling’. It will not do.

‘Old’ is okay: Old English, but no glamour. Even old objects have to be called ‘antiques’ to become interesting. Perhaps it could acquire jollier associations in its archaic form ‘olden.’ Would I mind being an olden if the image were brushed up a bit? Olden has some mystery to it. Elder is not bad, but it has a hierarchical ring.

There is work to be done here. Some good spinning: quite useful if it makes us feel valued and takes account of our wisdom and all-round attractiveness. It will come.

Meanwhile I take enormous satisfaction from the SA government’s decision to abandon annual compulsory medical tests for drivers aged 70 and over. Victoria, which doesn’t have age-based testing, helped to show SA the way. There was no evidence that such tests lowered crash rates. They just made us feel bad.

I liked what Health and Ageing Minister Jack Snelling had to say, no doubt advised by some oldens (getting to like it better?) and elders: “People are living longer and fuller lives and we need to have more relevant policies that do not discriminate by age and support our older population.”

So there. When I was young we would have added for the benefit of those who say bad things about olden/senior/drivers: “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

These days we know that even put-downs shouldn’t be smoked. But it’s an excellent blow to discrimination. All the ‘buts’ have been considered and chased out the door. Old people, call them what you like, are as responsible as any in the community. And when we find the proper word for us, it will be evident to all. Perhaps ‘majority’?

Just joking. Oldens do that.


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Written by Shirley Stott Despoja. Reproduced with Shirley’s permission. The column was first published  in the Adelaide Review.

Shirley’s Third Age columns appear in  The Adelaide Review and The Melbourne Review each month.




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