The term “elderly” has fallen on hard times. A recent NPR segment by Linton Weeks reports that listeners objected to an NPR story that described a 71 year-old midwife as elderly. One listener wrote “I was 70 in Feb and I certainly do not feel elderly …“ Another stated that the midwife couldn’t be elderly if she was still delivering babies. Weeks concluded that the word “is becoming politically (and politely) incorrect.”
What does it mean to be elderly? William H. Thomas, a physician who has written quite a bit about older adulthood, suggests that adults prioritize doing over being, whereas elders emphasize being rather than doing. He thinks members of our society try to cling to adulthood and view elderhood as a decline from the supposedly higher plane of adulthood’s unending accomplishment. In contrast to society’s denigration of the elderly, Thomas sees elders as having valuable gifts to offer the rest of society and thinks of elderhood as a different but not lesser way of living:
“Elders develop a new relationship with time. As the years pass, the pressures treated by living one’s life in the thrall of the future abate. The past, long exiled from the bustle of daily life, gains new prominence. . . . Elders recount scenes from their lives, intent upon distilling, from the pale liquid of memory, the meaning of the life they have lived.” What are Old People For? p. 127
NPR reporter Weeks notes that, in contrast to the negative connotation that the adjective “elderly” has acquired, the noun “elder” has more positive associations, as in the descriptor “an elder statesman.” We’re told to respect our elders and, in some cultural settings, elders are seen as repositories of wisdom. Despite the different valances the terms “elderly” and “elder” have acquired, it should be noted that they refer to the same thing. Elders are elderly.
It’s unfortunate that so many in our society cling to doing—to proving themselves over and over again by their accomplishments—when they could instead ease into a more contemplative state, that of being. Old-but-not-elderly adults are like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill again and again and again. Elderly adults know when to stop pushing.
Adulthood is repetition. Elderhood is reflection. Freed from daily toil, elders consider the larger meaning of life’s course.
Adulthood is narrow. Elderhood is broad.
Adulthood is frenzied. Elderhood is tranquil.
Adulthood is striving. Elderhood is abiding.
I’ll be 65 in less than 2 months, so I’m getting old. My aging happens automatically, but becoming elderly will be the achievement of a new way of living. I admit that I’m still infected with much of the busyness of adulthood, but I aspire to elderhood. It would be tragic to become old without becoming elderly.