No, I’m not checking out early. If I were, I’d practice far less self-denial. I expect to live a lot longer than my life choices say I should, which is unfair to people who made excellent life choices and don’t get to do so. I can’t help that.
Rather, I plan to refuse the label, ‘senior citizen.’ I hate it.
My problem is not with my elders per se, but with this prominent tumor in our landscape of euphemisms. Some of them actually warp meaning. (How is ‘bath tissue’ descriptive of toilet paper? Do you take toilet paper into the bath with you?)
Worse still, every so often, we decide that the label is not laudatory enough, and concoct a new one that kisses more ass, deviates farther from sane reality. This is grotesque. If you aren’t satisfied that your label kisses enough ass, why not just call them ‘sainted deities’ so you don’t have to keep upgrading to something gushier? I’m serious. If that’s the ultimate intent, just come up with something right now that implies they are perfect and wonderful in every way, and speech-nightstick the rest of us into using it. Take the short cut.
My grandfather, who was elderly for most of the time I knew him, referred to himself as elderly. He also referred to his clients as elderly. As a nursing home administrator, that was a lot of people. If we’re going to choose a word, I’d say ‘elderly’ is a little nicer-sounding than ‘old’ to apply to people (but only if one attaches stigma to age as a concept, which our culture definitely does). If we want a shorter single noun for ‘elderly people,’ we have ‘elders’ ready to hand. We don’t need ‘senior citizen.’ For one thing, we don’t know whether or not they are citizens, especially in my area. (I am reminded of the dumbass who lauded Nelson Mandela as a ‘brave African American.’) For another, it feels like trying to hide the reality of aging, as if the fundamental fact is stigmatizing. I do not consider that it must be so, though I must say that quite a few elderly people seem dead set on making it so by the way they treat the young people who serve them. The term seems to hint that one is afraid or ashamed to come to terms with old age, and thus now wants a new word that will let him or her pretend otherwise.
In keeping with the tradition of more laudatory euphemisms every so often, now stores and restaurants are using ‘honored citizen’ to describe discounts and menus. Gods. Does that mean that the rest of the citizens are not honored? Dishonored? What is worse, it plays into a sense of entitlement that says to youth: now it’s my turn to be a jerk and make the kids put up with it. I will become harder to please, less patient, crabbier, fussier, and expect to be catered to as though this all were my due. Oh, am I going to enjoy this. I will let my ‘too old to give a shit’ flag fly free!
Think of it as Roseanne’s Mother Syndrome.
So far as I’m concerned, this is a horrible way to age. It tells me that this person, despite all those years of experience, has missed most of the lessons. Patience? Nah. Compassion? Faaaa! Empathy? Harrumph. Kindness? Screw you, my hip hurts. Courtesy? I’m old enough not to care what people think. Smile? I’m grumpy, so forget it!
(I cannot resist a digression. My parents-in-law lived in a gated ‘senior citizen’ community in Orlando. FIL was president of the HOA, a hive of backbiting and bitchery that only his considerable retired first sergeant skills could restrain from open civil warfare. He nearly always had someone in his house complaining about someone else. Anyway, the first morning I was there, he was sitting with another old guy in the living room and introduced me. The old man scowled at me. “I’m grumpy,” he said, I decided to have a little fun. I smiled, walked up and put out my hand. “Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Grumpy!” I think my FIL smiled. And when I was gone, I suspect Mr. Grumpy did. In fact, I called him that for the rest of the time I knew him, and asked about him by that term when I talked to my parents-in-law. He’s long since passed on now, and I couldn’t tell you what Mr. Grumpy’s driver’s license said his name was.)
But back to life’s lessons. How awful is that? Not only does it mean that all life taught someone is to be a worse person, it separates one. It divides one from the youthful and middle-aged majority of society. The young will endure it, as they always have, but it will harm them for no good reason on multiple levels. In addition to the indignity of having to tolerate crabbiness they did not deserve, the young won’t get what could help them most. They need access to all that elders have learned, but they damn sure aren’t going to ask an unapproachable person. Young and old move farther apart.
It is not acceptable to me. I don’t want to be alone. One day, unless something goes very wrong very soon, I will be elderly. If my grandmother’s genetics have taken significant hold, it is theoretically possible I could spend a long time being elderly. The one barrier we can nearly never cross in perception before we cross it for real is time: at fifty-four, it is not in my power even to imagine how sixty and seventy and ninety feel. Following my own logic, maybe when I’m sixty I’ll have this huge change of heart, embrace ‘senior citizen’ for myself, become a jerk, and dismiss this post as whippersnapper stuff. I cannot know nor can I imagine. However, I think it likelier I will hold fast to a view that by then will have aged six more years in the barrel.
At the same time, if young people call me a senior citizen, or an honored citizen, or whatever increasingly laudatory baloney their employers have pressed upon them, I won’t get mean about that. Talk about someone who didn’t even read his own messages. No, I’ll just smile and be kind to the kids. Why?
I do not often raise my voice.
Because we should be kind to the kids. Because it is wise and just and proper and decent. And because anyone too stupid to figure that out in sixty or more years, including thirty spent as a young person in one’s own right, has wasted over half a century.
The young need our help, if they can view us as people rather than wellsprings of grump. They need our knowledge, our friendship, and above all, they need our support. They need us to seek to understand their world, that it differs from the one we experienced at their age, and to apply all we have learned while offering them our resilient support. I have seen elderly people who aged in this way, and it taught me a lot about how I ought to age. When they finally passed on, they left a world filled with loving kindness that had delighted to honor them and now revered their memories. They were never separate.
They did not need euphemisms. They made elderhood something to admire on its own merit.
Euphemisms are only needed when honesty simply won’t do.