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In search of a word that won’t offend ‘old’ people

Actresses Lily Tomlin (left) and Jane Fonda star in “Gracie and Frankie.” (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images For Siriusxm)
Dec 29 2017

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Faculty, In the News

By Laura L. Carstensen December 29, 2017

Laura L. Carstensen is professor of psychology and the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. professor in public policy at Stanford University.

We hear a lot about aging societies these days. At the same time, we hear relatively little about being old from older people themselves. In part, this is because most people in their 60s, 70s and older still don’t think of themselves as “old.” We often refer to old people in the third person.

As long as we are healthy and engaged in life — as most people in their 60s, 70s and older are — we don’t view ourselves as old. But by using “they” rather than “we” in our minds and our conversations, we keep an entire stage of life at arm’s length. By failing to identify with “old,” the story about old people remains a dreary one about loss and decline.

Language matters: We need a term that aging people can embrace.