Previously on My New Old Self, as they say on TV, was a condemnation of the revival of a centuries old epithet for old people. Dotard, that word resuscitated from obscurity in the Trump-Kim Jung-un word wars, was rejected for conflating chronological enhancement with dotage and dementia.
So we know what we don’t want to be called – but haven’t clarified what word we would prefer. Hence this return to the quest to find the least offensive term for “old”.
Official words used by governments and organisations to identify those over 65, like “pensioner” and “senior citizen”, have not been enthusiastically embraced. Moving from nouns to adjectives, “the elderly” or “the aged” are also not popular. They seem like labels for an amorphous group rather than individuals. Then there are adjectives which seem borrowed from the kitchen, like “seasoned” or “mature”.
There are also many terms used to describe death and dying without having to utter those D-words. People are said to have “passed”. Often this gentle verb gets paired with other words, as in “passed on” or “passed away”.
These words are euphemisms, aiming to soften the frightening finality of the endpoint of ageing. New death-related euphemisms are continually coined, e.g. this understatement apparently now used at hospitals: “Negative patient outcome”. Some euphemisms about death can even be funny, as in the deceased being described as “terminally indisposed”.
Which brings me to a term for old age that was new to me: Late Adulthood. This seemed at first like the epitome of euphemising ageing. A reassurance that, whatever your age, you can still be categorised as an adult. As you have been since the birthday that allowed you to drink, vote and enjoy Adult Entertainment. It’s just that you are now in the latest stage of said adulthood.
I was interested to see that Google’s Top Result on Late Adulthood took me to the site of Cliffs Notes, those study guides that students apparently still use to cram for exams. There are now countless knock-offs, many of which are available as apps on computers and phones.
I was further intrigued to learn what the major consumers of study guides, young people, are being taught about old age – as re-branded by the term Late Adulthood.
Firstly, it was interesting to note that those in the earliest phase of adulthood are given a reason to care about its last phase. These crib sheets tell students that understanding Late Adulthood is important because a fifth of the population of the US, UK and most of Western Europe will have reached this stage by 2030. Japan, Germany and Italy are already there.
It ain’t necessarily so
I was also pleased to see that this description of Late Adulthood makes the point that “growing old is not necessarily synonymous with substantial mental or physical deterioration”. It states reassuringly that “many older people are happy and engaged in a variety of activities”.
Cliff Notes are also encouragingly positive about the intellectual changes in Late Adulthood. Students are told that while “fluid intelligence (the ability to see and to use patterns and relationships to solve problems) does decline, crystallized intelligence (the ability to use accumulated information to solve problems and make decisions) has been shown to rise slightly over the entire life span”. I will try to remember this next time I’m having a “senior moment”.
A fascinating aspect of this overview on Late Adulthood was the inclusion of Erik Erikson, a pioneer in promoting a long view of the stages of human development. Unlike many psychologists, he understood development not only as part of childhood, but as spanning one’s entire life. He saw the final stage of psychosocial development as beginning at age 65 and continuing until The End.
From crisis to crisis
Erikson associated each stage of human life with a psychosocial crisis that must be resolved. The final life crisis, in Late Adulthood, is said to be caused by the realisation of one’s own mortality. This is said to spur an older person to review his or her life, to assess whether it was a success or a failure.
Sounds kind of scary. Erikson’s advice: “It is important to find meaning and satisfaction in life, rather than to become bitter and disillusioned.” From my life experience that’s easier said than done. His tip on finding the elusive meaning of life: “Resolve the conflict of integrity vs. despair.”
If your life review has a positive resolution, the outcome is wisdom. Before you dismiss this as a vapid cliché about ageing, please note Erikson’s definition of wisdom: “informed and detached concern with life itself in the face of death itself”.
I think that’s psychobabble for coping, aided by our accumulation of knowledge and insight gained over decades. Whether you use the term Late Adulthood or just stick with Old Age, as they say, it beats the alternative.